In 1942, with little to rely on except tremendous courage, a strong bond of love, faith and personal ingenuity, the Stermer family was forced to hide from the Nazis in cold, damp underground caves in the Ukraine where they lived for over 500 days in near total darkness. Seventy years later, through a combination of dramatic reenactments and interviews with the survivors, veteran documentary filmmaker and television producer Janet Tobias has brought to life their harrowing experience in her fascinating documentary, No Place on Earth, opening in theaters on April 5th.
In an exclusive interview, Tobias talked to me about what convinced her to make this inspiring film about Holocaust survival, the financing and logistical challenges she encountered, how her prior experience informed her approach, what her actors and creative team contributed, what impressed her most about the surviving family members, and why she felt a sense of obligation to preserve living history and pass their stories forward for future generations. She also revealed her upcoming projects: a documentary on the World Memory Championships, a drama about oil and greed in 1920’s Oklahoma, and a 3D IMAX film on human eco-systems. Hit the jump to read the interview.
JANET TOBIAS: Actually someone brought it to me and said, “I’ve got a great Holocaust story.” I said, “I don’t think so,” because there are so many great Holocaust dramas and documentaries. And they said, “You’ve got to go meet the Stermer family. You’ve got to meet Chris Nicola, the caver/explorer who found the objects.” I did, and I thought, since I started at 60 Minutes right after college to the present day, it’s one of the two or three best stories that I’ve ever heard and the most incredible human survival story that I’ve ever heard. And so, that was it. Then I was like, “I have to make this story.” There was a lot of joy and pride by the survivors about what they had done. That was probably the most surprising thing from the beginning because so much of the Holocaust is so terrible. It’s about pure survival under the most horrific circumstances. And they have such [joy]. They laugh about some parts of it, because they were connected with friends and family, and what they did was unbelievable.
How difficult was it to get the financing for the film and how did that fall into place?
TOBIAS: The truth was it was hard. We were really lucky right from the beginning without shooting any history films. The History Channel came in, and they do a small number of theatrical films every year. And so, they came in early, but because we were doing a film that is a hybrid of drama and doc, and we were also taking very old people back to an extremely rural Ukraine and trying to bring them down into caves that are really difficult, it was not going to be a cheap film to make. It took a while. We put together the financing over literally a couple years. We ended up with private investors and film partners from England, Germany and the United States. It took three different nationalities to make it happen.
This is your first feature documentary. What did you learn making the film that you wish you had known on the first day of filming?
TOBIAS: I have such respect now for the independent film world, both drama and doc, because I grew up in a professional sense. My first job out of university in journalism of substance was at PBS, and then I worked at 60 Minutes, and that’s about as privileged an environment when I joined in the 80’s as you could have. It was the number one rated show in the country of any sort. At the time, it had unlimited funding to do whatever you wanted to do. And so, independent film and drama and doc is a labor of love for everyone on the crew to make something that can potentially break through and have people watch it. I think I would have said, “Be patient with the process,” because I was used to bigger engines that could drive things rather than us having to drive all aspects of it.
How did your prior experience as a veteran documentarian and TV producer inform your approach to this project and how did your creative team contribute?
TOBIAS: In the interview process, as a journalist, you spend a lot of time listening to people and asking questions, and that felt really comfortable. So that was not in any way different for me. And especially in documentaries, you have the privilege of listening for a long time before they’re on camera so they feel comfortable. And then afterwards, you’re not in a hurry, and that’s the way that stories like this need to be told. It was a pure joy to work on the drama side. I love our actors. We had a really talented group of Hungarian actors. I communicated with them for the most part, with a few exceptions, using translators, which was an interesting process. And then, I’m shining the shoes of my edit and DP team. Cesar Charlone, who shot City of God and Constant Gardener, shot the documentaries and he was brilliant. Eduard Grau shot A Single Man and Peter Simonite is Terrence Malick’s second unit person a lot of the time. They shot the drama. And so, I had incredibly good partners, great Hungarian actors, incredibly good partners on the DP side to try and create a more theatrical canvas, and then an incredible edit team with Deirdre Slevin, who had never done a doc before, who is a drama editor. I had Claus Wehlisch and then extra help from Alexander Berner who are quite well known German editors of mostly drama but also doc. We could create this blend of drama and doc. I never felt alone at all. I felt like instead I should shine shoes for a while.
TOBIAS: Once we decided to go down the blended path, the structure is really surprisingly close to what we started out with. What is different always and the complete joy of documentary is that there are moments in the film, and I almost don’t want to give them away, but there are moments in the film at the end where it’s the miracle of something happening in the moment, and that’s always a joy and a surprise. I didn’t predict that. A couple of those moments just happened. I think my favorite moment in the film on the documentary side is something that wasn’t planned and just happened. It’s about light and dark in the cave in a scene. On the drama side, we had great actors, but I would single out one. I felt all of them were great, but there was a 12-year-old boy (Daniel Hegedus) playing Sol Wexler, who lost his mother and brother, and he was an old soul child who I am talking to through translators. He doesn’t speak a word of English and he was very thoughtful. We translated the script for him and he read it. I felt that he really understood. You could see him stay in character and experience what it would be like to go through what Sol experienced having lost his mother and brother and then being worried about what would happen to him in Hungary.
What were some of the unique challenges you faced and how did you deal with them?
TOBIAS: The unique challenges were particularly about filming in the caves and bringing people in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to the rural Ukraine to a place where people had been shooting them, even after the war. Saul Stermer was 90 then and now he’s 92. So one, you have to make them feel safe enough in general and in the environment. Two, the second cave in particular was unbelievably difficult. You go down a hundred foot shaft. You’re lowering equipment. Then you crawl down a tiny crawl space where none of the guys could [fit]. They all had to turn sideways. You multiple-bag every piece of equipment. You’re wedging it through the walls until you get through. You have to dig out trenches, because there’s water to move the mud and make things passable. One of my sound guys was slightly claustrophobic because it was that narrow. You’re running thousands of pounds of cable in running water down a cave. And then, you’re in charge of elderly people’s safety. That was really difficult. We didn’t shoot the drama there. We shot the drama in northern Hungary on the Slovakian border because that cave would not have been possible with actors. And, shooting underground, my hat is off to our drama unit, to the gaffers and DPs, because that’s incredibly difficult to shoot with light and conditions in caves.
What kind of research did you do in preparation for making the film?
TOBIAS: I read a lot. I’m a big fan of books and history, and so I read a lot. I probably used reading, and then, of course, I’d actually seen many of the great Holocaust films. But this film was quite different than any of the films about camps. It’s not that environment. I did look at films shot underground. Everything from going back and looking at Indiana Jones literally and looking at what George Lucas did in that underground world. There’s a horror film called The Descent which is about women who are on an outward bound trip who get caught. You look at environments to see what it takes in terms of light levels. I looked at Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness. She was a little bit ahead of me, but we were doing our films somewhat at the same time. We took some equipment from one of her production managers. But, that’s the sewers, not a cave. It’s like what do you do about light levels? And you think a lot about it. It is a film you’ve got to see. It was even darker than what we can all see. It’s about what’s the line between how dark it needs to be to be real but to also have you see the actors and the people.
TOBIAS: I spent a little time thinking about that. I’ll just say it. I’m not a fan of a lot of reenactments, and in docs, I think they take you out of it. A lot of them don’t work and they don’t look right, and you wish they were drama. But, in this case, I think two things. One, that’s why I ended up with Hollywood drama people as editors and DPs to imagine a world of the cave. Most of us have been to maybe one or two caves in one room. Imagine what it would be like to live underground for a year and a half and what that experience is like from the mud to the rock to the claustrophobia to the light levels. These guys were actors on their environment. They weren’t sitting and thinking. They were constantly doing in a thriller sort of way. And so, I felt like we needed drama to help the audience understand that that’s what they did, that they weren’t old people sitting in a chair, that this was the most incredible thriller-adventure story. On the other hand, I also had real people who were the last living eyewitnesses, and in maybe a decade or so, there will soon not be any people who can say, “I saw that happen.” It was really important to have them tell the story, and we didn’t need to embellish anything. The facts are more incredible than you could make up.
What impressed you most about the surviving family members you met and what they told you about what had happened to them?
TOBIAS: In the beginning, it was their happiness and pride and the fact that they were such good storytellers. Taking them back to the Ukraine, I would say was interesting, and that’s one thing that I didn’t predict. When something incredibly traumatic or important happens to us, we’re often frozen in that moment in time. So they were 21, 15, 8 and 4, approximately. When we took them back to the Ukraine, you could feel that each of them was a little bit the age they were when that happened. Those are very different ages and perspectives on the world. Hence, an 8-year-old girl could say, “The cave was my playground. I pretended it was a castle.” If you were 8, you would. And a 21-year-old remembers this as a love affair with his brother and what they were able to do as a team together outside the cave. And a 15-year-old remembers, “Could I possibly keep up with my older brothers? I’m trying really hard to contribute as much as possible, and do as much as I can, because I’m not 27 or 28 or 21.” And a 4-year-old remembers snatches of flashes of vision. I didn’t remember, of course, that that would be true, that you would remember intensely in that moment in time of how old you were.
TOBIAS: I get great joy out of two things. One is that a 92-year-old laughs every time he talks to me on the phone because he’s so proud that his story is out there. And then also, I’ve always thought that this was a young person’s story and I’m no longer a young person. Documentaries are often seen as more for a slightly middle-aged or mature audience, and I care that this is a young person’s story, because they were really young when this happened. They were teenage boys and young men in their twenties. There were no male leaders above about 32 and there were children. The chance to make a difference in the world is theirs now and will be theirs in the future. They also are the people who haven’t seen every film on the subject, and so I really care that people in their twenties [see it]. We’re working on educational programs right now. We have some cool educational partners to do digital worlds of exploring caves on line to reach kids in middle school and high school, too. But yes, I’m glad you got that, because I cared. It’s a young person’s story. They were really young.
In the course of making this film, what did you learn or discover that was most surprising?
Tobias: I was reminded that it took our village and our team to create this film, and the reason they survived was they had a range of skills. They had Saul, the carpenter, who could make a sleigh with no nails by boiling wood and figuring it out. They had Nissel who was unbelievably brave and strong and did crazy, risky things. They had a mother who kept the calendar in her head and was Golda Meir-like in her fierceness of, “We’re not going to the ghetto. We’re not doing it.” Her husband and son-in-law wanted to go. They wanted to register, and she stood in front of them and said, “I’m going to knock you down rather than have you go register.” She read all the newspapers. It took a combination of bravery, intelligence, technical skills and kindness, and it took that on our team, too. Sometimes you need the kind person who, when things are tough and everyone’s shooting underground, can make everyone laugh and connect people. You need a combination of skills to accomplish things. In modern day America, where we’re all individualistic, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it really does take a village to do anything great. It does take a team. I should know that in filmmaking, but I was reminded of that.
What’s do you have coming up next?
TOBIAS: I’m doing a documentary on the World Memory Championships which is basically ten different categories, everything from faces to names to numbers to decks of cards. How fast or how much can you memorize within 15 minutes or 30 minutes and a deck of cards in 47 seconds? It’s that crazy world of competition and how they do it by creating these Inception-like visual worlds where you populate what you have to remember in journeys. Right now, I’m just calling it Memory Games. And then, on the drama side, I’m working on a drama about one of the wealthiest oil fields in America in Oklahoma. The result was there was so much money in oil there, and a small number of families controlled the allotments, and people started to murder each other for the allotments. That was one of the first great FBI investigations. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover thought it was such a great story that he tried to get Hollywood to do it in the early 1950’s. I’m still amazed that no one else had worked on it. But anyway, it’s a story about oil and greed and murder in 1920’s America. Right now I’m just calling it Oil, but it’ll have a better name by the time I get there.
TOBIAS: Yes, I have another life in technology and health care. I’m an Adjunct at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and I sit on the Drug Forum of the Institute of Medicine. And how that happened is, I majored in the humanities and I have siblings who are very talented in the sciences. My father was a chemistry professor. They think it is the most hysterical thing that the sister who didn’t take chemistry has a career in medicine and technology. I’m really interesting in using 3D and IMAX, and so I am working on a project on this whole idea that essentially we’re a human eco-system of viruses and bacteria. We are more bacteria than we are human cells, and we’re our own eco-systems, and we’re just beginning to understand what that means. I think a 3D IMAX version for theaters and for museums is what you do with that because it’s an incredibly fascinating and crazy visual world. So that’s the other one.