A trio of Local 600 DPs uncover an inspiring tale of human endurance in the new Holocaust documentary No Place on Earth

No Place on Earth should be required viewing. The film takes audiences on a journey some 70 years back in history to a dark time when the Nazi regime murdered approximately six million Jews during the Holocaust. Thirty-eight Jewish men, women and children, from five families, survived for 511 days by hiding in a dark, underground cave in Ukraine. Some of the younger men ventured into the outside world at night to find food and fire wood.

Ukraine is a small country bordering on Russia, Poland and Hungary. The cave was discovered by Chris Nicola, an American who was searching for his ancestral roots. Nicola found a shoe, a key, a comb and other artifacts in the cave. His discovery was documented in an article published by National Geographic Adventure Magazine.

After reading the article, producer Janet Tobias contacted Nicola. He introduced her to Yetta Stermer, one of the survivors who migrated to the United States after the war.

“After hearing her memories, I decided this is a really important story that must be told,” Tobias recalls. “Chris and I had meetings with other survivors. I wanted to get a sense of the dynamic that motivated their family’s fight for survival.”

(L to R) Sam Stermer, Gustav Stibranyi, Saul Stermer, and Norbert Danko return to the cave outside of Priest’s Grotto, Ukraine, where they lived for more than 500 days during the Holocaust

The 83-minute documentary blends re-enactments of history happening in and around the cave and interviews with survivors. It was the first time directing for Tobias, whose previous experience included producing television news stories for 60 Minutes, Frontline and Dateline. She recruited five cinematographers to collaborate with her at the practical location in Ukraine and during interviews with survivors. They included Local 600 members Eduard Grau, Sean Kirby and Peter Simonite. Additional cinematography was done by Cesar Charlone, a South American native, who earned an Academy Award nomination for City of God in 2002, and Zac Nicholson, who shot memorable scenes in addition to serving as a camera operator.

Tobias worked with multiple DP’s because production was done during different journeys to Ukraine and interviews with survivors in the United States over a two-year period. “The drama was produced in three parts,” she details. “We shot re-enactment scenes in the cave when it was two degrees below zero outside. We also shot scenes during the spring and summer to get a sense of what it was like during different seasons.  A sound stage in Hungary was used for dangerous scenes featuring children.”

The filmmaker says the prime challenge of the project was to “give audiences a feeling for the darkness and claustrophobia inside the cave. There are faces and other things that we want them to see, so they get a sense of what it was like down there. People only left the cave at night. We shot those as day for night scenes.”

Actress Kati Laban portraying cave survivor Esther Stermer

The experience made an indelible impression on all of the cinematographers, whose work has been praised on the Web for “complimenting the telling of this story wonderfully … a world where hell had no barriers and deserved no place on Earth.”

Veteran non-fiction shooter Kirby [ICG November 2010] says the appeal of the project was “the incredible story of the survivors who experienced this ordeal and their stories about friends and relatives who didn’t make it. I was also drawn to the challenge of shooting in the longest known cave system in the world; not purely from a technical point of view, but also as a window on what the survivors went through. I relied on the location as a focal point of inspiration.”

Kirby, who also shot the interviews with surviving family members, says it was his first experience working on a Holocaust film. “I studied drawings and paintings by Jerome Witkin, an artist who focused on the Holocaust, and spent an extended time sitting in a very dark place thinking about how to define darkness for a film about people who went days on end without seeing the light from a candle,” he reflects.

Rafael Marmor, one of the producers, introduced Grau to Tobias.

“I felt that it was an incredible story that needs to be told,” Grau says. “I was also attracted by the visual challenges. I had long conversations with Janet about her vision. She emphasized that the darkness has to look and feel believable, so the audience has a sense of what the people went through.  We shot extensive tests before renting an ARRI Alexa digital camera with a Zeiss 1.3 lens.”

American writer Chris Nicola who discovered the caves

Grau shot scenes during the winter. He wasn’t available during the spring, so Grau introduced Tobias to Simonite who shot scenes in a cave near Budapest.

“I think [Tobias] felt I was a good fit, because of the second unit work I had done filming children in The Tree of Life, a feature film that Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezski, ASC] shot for Terrence Malick,” Simonite says. “There was going to be a good amount of filming with young actors in the Hungarian caves. Janet wanted to tell that part of the story through the children’s eyes.

Simonite says he was drawn in by Tobias’ “intelligence and sensitivity to detail” that were the keys to telling the story. “Janet’s interest in the symbolism of the cave and the metaphorical use of light and darkness also appealed to me,” the Texas-based shooter adds. “We had several Skype conversations while I was working on another project. I also spoke with Eduard about his approach to lighting the cave.  I was particularly interested in the challenge of maintaining a consistent photographic vision that tied together with the images captured by the other cinematographers. There were a lot of day for night exteriors, which were exciting.

“Eduard shot the winter exteriors and some cave scenes,” Simonite continues. “I shot most of the cave scenes and the finale, where people emerged from the cave. Cesar shot most of the footage with survivors. Kirby shot the interviews and Zac operated a second camera when we were covering complex scenes from different angles. He also shot several important scenes independently.

Simonite says the ALEXA with the 1.3 super-speed lens provided a softer look, while Nicholson used his own Canon EOS C300 for some extremely low light shots.

No Place On Earth director Janet Tobias

“We wanted to create a contrast between deep darkness and softness captured with handheld shots in the cave,” Simonite adds. “In the final scene, where the family emerges from the cave, I used an Ultra Prime lens for a sharper look with the camera on a Steadicam. One of our goals was to amplify the blinding light that the family saw and felt. The wider angle and smoother movement accentuated the feeling of release; the warmer color temperature accentuated the feeling of safety Janet wanted.”

In fact, Tobias cast people with interesting faces and spent a lot of time selecting their wardrobes. The interior of the cave and the countryside looked exactly the way they did during the 1940s. Scenes were also shot in a small museum-like village called Skanzen.

Tobias and Nicholson live in the same neighborhood in New York.  She saw a short film that he directed, which inspired her to contact him. At first, their conversations were general, and then Tobias told Nicholson about her plans for No Place On Earth.

“It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the story is mind-blowing,” he says. “The opportunity to work on a film that gives a fresh slant to a universally known human tragedy was more than tempting. Her unique approach to telling the story through detailed recreations sealed the deal for me.”

Nicholson says that his approach to telling stories with moving images has been influenced by authors, painters and choreographers as well as filmmakers. “My first full day in Ukraine, I found myself squeezing down a mud hole into the belly of the cave that is miles long,” he says. “It was a really tough environment. It was humid, slippery, dark and really dirty… certainly not a great environment for using sensors on lenses.

Survivors Sam Stermer and Saul Stermer inside Verteba Cave

“This was my first real use of the C-300 in a severely challenging environment. The camera only weighs about four pounds, and its low-light capabilities made it an obvious choice for this documentary. There were times when the main unit was using most of our lights, so we had to improvise. Someone from the art department would substitute as our gaffer by holding candles and lanterns. Sometimes we had three people holding candles around a subject to get the look we wanted.

“We didn’t only shoot in caves,” Nicholson adds. “There are scenes in the Slovakian National Forest, on sound stages in Budapest and in a historical village. When I wasn’t shooting on my own, I was Peter’s B-camera operator. There were a lot of day for night shots when someone would leave the cave to search for food. That gave us a lot of challenges with shadows. We shot exteriors as much as possible during magic hour.

Nicholson also shot behind the scenes footage in the Ukraine in 2010, some of which was used in the climactic scenes, and served as second unit cameraman when Kirby was shooting interviews in Florida and New York.

“Working on this film was an unbelievable experience,” the young filmmaker relates. “I travelled to the Ukraine with some of the survivors and spent a lot of time with them while they were experiencing the emotions of being there. During the interviews, there were plenty of times when Sean and I would be wiping teardrops off of our eyepieces. They were literally fogged with tears.”

Tobias asked Nicholson to direct, shoot and edit an epilogue for No Place On Earth’s television premiere on the History Channel. The epilogue is the story of what happened right after the war.

Chris Nicola in a cave in Georgia (USA)

“Two patriarchs of the Stermer family were murdered before they could get out of the Ukraine,” Nicholson concludes. “It is hard to fathom what these people went through, even after working so long on this film. I am glad that it was made and am honored to be part of it.”

No Place on Earth premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. It subsequently won awards at the Hamptons and Palm Springs International Film Festivals before making its theatrical debut in Chicago in April. Magnolia Pictures distributed the film to cinemas in the United States.

Tobias recently traveled to Germany where the documentary was being shown to cinema audiences. “Senator Films, our distributor in Germany did a nice job of dubbing voices rather than using sub-titles,” she observes. “Audiences there were very emotional.”

For more information check out: http://www.magpictures.com.

By Bob Fisher. All photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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