Interview: Janet Tobias on Burrowing Deep Into the Holocaust Survival Documentary “No Place on Earth”

There are times when Janet Tobias wishes now that Saul Stermer, one of the main subjects of her documentary “No Place on Earth,” would decline to take her calls.

“Occasionally, I’ll call him on the cell phone and he’s driving on his cell phone,” Tobias says of the 92-year-old. “And I’m like, “Get Off!” [laughs] Like that’s not okay even when you’re 50!”

Yet Stermer fears nothing, nor should he. Still spry and running a construction company these days, his survival skills haven’t dulled since he once took up residence in the Verteba and Priest’s Grotto caves in Ukraine for eighteen months at the height of World War II to hide from the Nazis. Following the lead of his mother Esther, Stermer and his brothers Sam and Nissel and his sisters Hannah, Henia and Yetta were part of a group of 38 that holed up in unthinkable conditions of near-complete darkness and stifling humidity as they plotted an escape out of Europe, a history that was literally dug up by cave explorer Chris Nicola five decades later as he was investigating the Gypsum Giant cave systems in search of his own family’s backstory and has since been preserved in Tobias’ first feature.

Recounted from both the perspective of the survivors and through dramatic reenactments, “No Place on Earth” takes on the tone of a race-against-time thriller, which according to Tobias could also have described the making of it, given the age of her subjects. On the eve of the film’s release in Los Angeles, Tobias spoke of overcoming her initial reluctance to join a crowded field of Holocaust-related documentaries, her outside-the-box choice of cinematographers and making good on the wishes of the Stermer family’s matriarch. 

How did you first learn of this and start approaching it? 

A colleague that I’d known in television brought it to me and said there’s this great holocaust story – you’ve got to do it. I said, “No, no, no. The bar is really high.” And he said you’ve got to meet the Stermer family and meet Chris Nicola the caver and once I did, I thought this is the most incredible human adventure survival story I’d ever heard. The Stermers told [their story] with such pride and then Chris was incredibly interesting, too — this intrepid Indiana Jones detective who went in search of his family and his Ukranian orthodox background and ends up not finding his family history, but found someone else’s story.

You’ve said the production actually started where the film ends, which is by bringing the survivors back to the caves where they once lived. How did that set the tone for what followed?

There were two reasons for that. One, I did want to invoke memory because the women had never been back to the Ukraine since they left as small children. The men had been back once before, but not gone into Priest’s Grotto or the cave. They had been back because they put a monument up to their father who had died after the war before they were able to leave in the early ’90s, but I had wanted them to sort of taste, touch and smell Ukraine and try and get into the caves before we did the interviews. The second reason was literally, Saul said to me, “I’m 90, I can’t do this. This is it. I’m at the end of the line. If we’re going to do this, we have to go now.” And the women, even though they’re in their 70s, were not in as good condition as Saul is and they said, “We’ve got to go now. We can’t wait any longer if you want us to go back.” 

Between that and the reenactments you shot, how much of a sense of what these families went through?

It definitely helped because you really need to get a sense of what it is. Caves redefine darkness. Most of us live in very lit environments because we live in cities or towns where there’s always ambient light from buildings or street lights. Even if you go to a National Park, there are stars in the sky or there’s a moon, so there’s some light. A cave is pitch black. So to understand that environment and then to understand it’s like 99 percent humidity and there’s a mean temperature year-around — this cave was in the low 50s — to think about what that meant for them was really, really helpful for us in shooting the drama. We didn’t shoot the drama in the actual cave because it would’ve been impossible. We shot it in a cave in Northern Hungary that is a tourist cave, but it’s still an extremely rigorous shoot to shoot in a cave of any sort.

But for that, you wisely hired Eduard Grau, who previously shot such films as “Buried.” In general, how did the aesthetic for this come about?

I love Edu! We really tried to create a drama feel because I’m not a fan of a lot of reenactments. They don’t feel real and that’s why I went to people like Edu and Cesar Charlone, who shot the [interviews] and did “City of God” and “Constant Gardener.” But Edu shot the drama and obviously his sense of lighting and his visual sense is unbelievable. You can see that in “A Single Man” and “Buried,” and Edu also has an incredible sense of actors in the scene, of what needs to go on for the actors to convey the emotion within the visual palette, which is really a blessing as a director. Since we weren’t using dialogue, we had to be really careful about that, as how to work with the performances that essentially don’t use speech.

Was it interesting to strike a balance between the reenactments in the film and the interviews with the survivors?

We worked really hard at that balance and to honor the survivors, since as I say to everyone, we will soon have no more eyewitnesses. There will be no more people who can say “I saw that. It happened to me.” And there’s something important about that to have that fact in it while giving you a sense of what they did, which is a thriller of adventure. We needed to capture that in the drama.

This isn’t to sound insensitive, but to circle back to your initial reluctance to work on this film, I have a concern perhaps similar to yours that there are so many Holocaust films, it’s been steadily diminishing the power of them. In making this film, did you have a change of heart in why it’s important to keep making them?

Each story is different and each story is important. But this story was unlike any of the other stories I still have in my mind. I still see scenes from “Schindler’s List.” But I think this story was a story, simply put, about triumph rather than defeat. They won in the end. They won by 38 people making it out of the second cave, they won by having all their children and grandchildren alive because they fought so hard.

It was also not a story of protectors. I loved Agnieszka Holland’s film “In Darkness,” but that’s really at its heart is a story about the Polish sewer worker who changed over time, who did it originally for money and then did it because he became connected to them. This is a story [where the families] did it themselves. They had a few people that could help them, but they didn’t have anyone providing food for them. They didn’t have anyone as the main protector. I felt the pride and joy that they had in how we can go through terrible things and come out with our spirits more than intact. There was a nanosecond where I thought should I just bring this to someone else who could make it as a pure drama, and I thought no. I was lucky that a lot of people like Edu felt the same and worked for tiny amounts of money in comparison to what they could work for because they believed the same thing.

Has there been a particularly special moment of being on the road with this film?

The survivors saw it at a rough cut, then they saw it in Toronto at the debut and then they actually saw it last week at a preview screening. They got a standing ovation in Toronto and I thought how awesome that they’re acknowledged for what they did. Then on Monday, Saul who never cries — he laughs and is so happy in person now started to tear up — he couldn’t say his brother Nissel’s name because Saul loved his brother beyond anything, they were a team and that was really moving to me. He said [to me], “I thought it would never get told.” And I thought okay, I’m going to feel good today about that it got told. Their mother Esther actually wrote in 1960 when she wrote the memoir, “If the allies come in and find this cave and story that maybe someday they’ll make a big Hollywood film about it.” [laughs] I thought maybe not a big Hollywood film, but she was one smart lady.

“No Place on Earth” is currently playing at the Angelika Film Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York and available on VOD. It expands on April 12th into limited release, including at the Landmark in West Los Angeles. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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