Janet Tobias’ film on the plight of Jewish Ukrainians living in the darkness of a cave system during Nazi occupation blends talking heads interviews with extensive dramatizations of horrible experiences – a ploy that does push the film into the docu-drama terrain – but it works, largely because the re-enactments manage to evoke the extreme conditions of what’s been inadvertently catalogued as the longest uninterrupted underground survival in human history.
To avoid capture and deportation to Nazi concentration camps, whole families lived underground for 511 days with severe water and food rations. After the first cave system was raided by the Nazis, those who managed to escape fled to a secondary network of caves where they waited out the war, emerging only after the Soviet Red Army had expunged the Nazis from the Ukraine. While living underground, the men would make strategic runs for food, often bartering the few goods they had, while others hid in the barns of sympathetic villagers.
Tobias weaves together three elements to create a fairly linear narrative – NYC cop / spelunker Chris Nicola, who discovered the first cave used by the persecuted Jewish Ukrainians; interviews with survivors from the Stermer and Dodyk families now living in New York City and Montreal; and the return of the survivors to the caves with members of their extended families – and although the film does have the tenor of a PBS documentary (no coincidence, since Tobias’ background lay in producing docs for the station), it’s still a potent story of human survival under horrendous conditions.
Where the film runs into trouble is in the midsection: after starting the film with Nicola and his yearning to find the story behind the people who lived in the caves, Tobias almost exclusively switches to dramatizations propelled by survivor recollections, and Nicola’s return in the finale feels abrupt; Tobias may have felt the power of the survival story mandated no interruption, but it does feel awkward when a leading character is needle-dropped back into the narrative after a lengthy absence.
Evocative cinematography captures the grimness of the caves, and John Piscitello’s score is appropriately restrained in the dramatic recreations and reunion sequences. The end-point, where a few survivors return to the actual caves, is especially moving, particularly the moment when a survivor asks the crew to turn off their lights, and absorb the still darkness he endured for more than a year.
Magnolia’s DVD sports an excellent transfer, plus extended and unused interviews which add a little more dimension to Tobias’ feature film debut.
A podcast interview with composer John Piscitello is also available.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan