While mapping out the largest cave system in Ukraine, explorer and investigator Chris Nicola discovers evidence that five Jewish families spent nearly a year and a half in the pitch-black caves to escape the Nazis. This is the story of the longest uninterrupted underground survival in recorded human history. Written by
A deeply moving film about how 38 Jews survived the Holocaust in underground caves in Ukraine for over 500 days
As John Anderson of "Variety" rightly notes, "this film defies the notion that the era has been exhausted of its stories, or the ways they can be told..." (http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117948276/). The interchange between graphic re-enactment, interviews of the survivors still with us today, and narrative of caver Chris Nicola, elevate this story from one about mere survival to one about the strength of the human spirit and the value of life.
Producers Janet Tobias, Rafael Marmor, Paul Laikin, Nadav Schirman, Susan Barnett, and Zita Kisgergely do more than depict a story. Like the family of 38 Jews escaping Nazi death camps and ghettos, we are led by the courageous matriarch of the family, Esther Stermer, into the deep underground of Ukraine.
In defiance of the myths of science-fiction/horrors about the underworld, the matriarch teaches us the truth about the worlds above and below ground in 1940s Europe; the real daemons are to be found up there, while the crutch of life and human spirit is found down below. And when the horror from above tries to come down below, it is confronted with the most powerful living spirit of them all - the spirit of a mother determined to protect her family.
The cinematography complements the telling of this story wonderfully. In the darkness of the caves, dimly lit candles bring hope; black-and-white historical videos and the grey tones from a clouded over sky infuse reality into the setting of the horror-world of the above; and the brightness and beauty of the spring blossom in the heart of the war provide a poetic irony that foretells of a coming heartbreak.
The detail of the costume design from broken buttons and worn shoe-laces to the mud and dirt covered white shirts of the eldest Stermer sons to the impenetrable headscarf of the matriarch add more than mere richness, but a believability that matches the real-life outfits worn by the cavers.
Finally, the devil is truly in the detail of the hair and head-to-toe make-up, which give off the festering scent of rot, mud and soak, and serve as a constant reminder that this is a story of real people trying to survive a world in which hell had no barriers, and deserved no place on earth.
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