The documentary "No Place on Earth" doesn't seem like it should work quite as well as it does. A History Channel production, the tale of Ukrainian Jews who survived in underground caves for 511 days while hiding from the Nazis during World War II is structured around lengthy, foreign-language re-enactments of the events featuring costumed performers.
Why not just commit to the undeniably thrilling theatricality of the story and make a fictionalized dramatic feature? Instead, Emmy-winning documentarian Janet Tobias ("Life 360") mixes dimly-lit historical stagings with more traditional interviews with survivors. Narration by Chris Nicola, the American spelunker who accidentally found signs of habitation in the caves in 1993, opens the film.
It's a surprisingly effective and moving way of doing things. The reason probably has less to do with the power of the acting, which is more than serviceable, than with the mind-boggling nature of the feat itself. Living in a cave for a month, let alone for a year and a half, seems almost unendurable.
Factor in the fugitives' discovery by the Gestapo, and their subsequent relocation to a second cave after paying off the local police -- who nevertheless shoot a couple of them -- and you've got a real-life adventure to rival any scripted drama.
It also helps that "No Place on Earth" pulls a "Schindler's List" move at the end, bringing the actual survivors -- who have been portrayed by actors throughout the film -- back to visit the caves at the film's conclusion. Like Spielberg's fact-based drama, which ended with several of "Schindler's Jews" placing stones on Oskar Schindler's grave, "No Place on Earth" reunites the tormented with their savior.
In this case, it is not a person, but a hiding place. Or rather, as the name of the film suggests, the absence of place, in a world in which they suddenly were not welcome.
"No Place on Earth" stirs the emotions as we watch the survivors and their young descendants unearth and then rebury -- almost literally -- the memories they have kept hidden and the miracle that kept those memories alive.
Two and a half stars. PG-13. Contains disturbing thematic material and brief violence. 84 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars okay, one star poor, no stars waste of time.