A Mystery to Unwind
“Every cave I enter has a secret,” says cave explorer Chris Nicola. “Down there in the darkness, there’s always a mystery to unwind.” A New Yorker with an accent that identifies him as such, Nicola describes his interest with language that’s at once precise and poetic. He’s found, over the decades he’s pursued his passion, that the secrets in caves tend not to be monsters but rather, histories, collective and individual, buried, forgotten, and also preserved.
In 1993, Nicola entered a cave in Ukraine’s Gypsum Giant cave systems. As he recalls in the documentary No Place on Earth—screening 26 March as the opening night film for Stranger Than Fiction‘s Spring Season, followed by a Q&A with director Janet Tobias—he first meant to research his own Eastern Orthodox family’s history. What he found in the caves that plan, however: shoes and a comb, tables made of stone, medicine bottles, objects apparently left behind by people who lived in the caves recently, at least by the measure of most cave discoveries. They were all “pieces of the puzzle,” Nicola says, though at the time he couldn’t know exactly which one. Intrigued, Nicola returned to the site, asking questions of locals. “Someone said, ‘Maybe some Jews lived in the cave,’” he remembers.
This presented a mystery in need of unwinding. And so Nicola started looking for people as well as objects. By research and by luck, he eventually came upon two families, the Stermers and the Wexlers. Six are survivors of World War II, and others are their children and grandchildren. Both families were wealthy enough to be able to plan for emigration to Canada from Korolowka when the town was declared ” judenfrei.” Their plans were aborted in October 1942. Their decision to move into the caves was founded in an admirable resistant spirit and also, an understanding early on that they would not survive the camps the Germans promised would provide housing and employment. And so they determined to become secret.
Some 30 members of the families spent 511 days in two different caves. After the first one, now the tourist destination Verteba, was discovered and raided by Nazis, they moved to a second, deeper cave, called Priest’s Grotto. It turns out that their stories of survival weren’t exactly secret, as Esther Stermer had, in 1960, written a memoir, We Fought to Survive. But few people had read it, or even knew it existed (only 500 copies were published), and so Nicola and Tobias undertook to tell the stories again.
The film presents something of a puzzle in itself. It begins with interviews with Nicola, both in his Manhattan apartment and in Ukraine, a handheld camera following him as he speaks to villagers, at least one of whom sounds as if she thinks “the Jews” got what they deserved. You also see intriguing, carefully composed shots of his findings, terrific descents into deep holes and pans over cave walls, as well as close images of a comb or a rusted food tin. And of course, the film includes talking heads, the survivors who remember what it was like to live underground for almost two years, who recall efforts to maintain a sense of time and community, looking after children or feeling frightened as children, as well as the traumas of facing or evading Nazi soldiers.
Some of the survivors kept rudimentary journals, others now remember what happened as best they can. You might make the case that very lack of visual records of these experiences helps to make them extraordinary. But as extraordinary as they may be, a movie needs pictures. And so the filmmakers came up with a solution, not unusual, but also imperfect: even as Sam Stermer or Saul Stermer voice their own memories, or an actor reads from the writings of Esther’s nephew Sol Wexler, the film provides reenactments.
Ranging from melodramatic to distracting, the reenactments show the risks of living in the dark, the difficulties of enduring dampness and confined space and lack of water or food. They also frame questions that are both related to and set apart from the plots they illustrate. Certainly, by this time in the history and theorization of documentary, no one image can be said to tell a complete or settled truth—even images captured at the time of an event, which by definition frame that event and leave out what’s beyond that frame or interpretive focus of the photographer or filmmaker.
This understanding of the subjectivity of documentary may endlessly fascinating or frustrating, depending on your tolerance for multiplicity and messiness. That said, reenactments tend to multiply that multiplicity, as they necessarily involve still more layers of interpretation and framing, including writers, actors, directors, costume and set and lighting designers. Sometimes reenactments can draw attention to these questions, as when, for example, different versions of a story are reflected indifferent reenactments (see: that most famous example, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line ).
It’s not surprising that No Place on Earth doesn’t engage questions of differences among versions of stories. Much of the business of remembering the Holocaust is an excavation project, insisting on truth in order to make political and cultural and utterly moral cases. So, memories are asserted and enshrined more often than they are interrogated or assessed, and personal experiences are crucial in the assertion process.
What may be a little surprising is how No Place on Earth goes about this process, tying together potentially disparate experiences: Sol Wexler’s troubled and troubling, fearful account is unlike Shulim’s more straight-ahead heroic memories, but both are lined up here in a chronology, as if they offer steps in one narrative, rather than simultaneous, alternative or even conflicting versions of that narrative, or even several narratives. Sonia Dodyk notes that Sol was hungry and afraid, but as a way to reinforce the central narrative, not to raise questions about it. Such questions are explicitly not the focus of No Place on Earth. But even as its visuals present truth, its multiple voices speak truths and, sometimes, keep secrets.