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‘No Place on Earth’ mines only the surface

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Magnolia Pictures presents a documentary produced, directed and co-written by Janet Tobias. In English, German and Yiddish, with English subtitles. Running time: 84 minutes. No MPAA-rating (wartime scenes of civilians, including children, in peril). Opening Friday at Landmark Century.

Updated: May 20, 2013 6:06AM

‘No Place on Earth,” an affirming yet manipulative documentary about the aftermath of the Holocaust, literally unearths a Ukrainian saga.

Chris Nicola, a spelunker based in Queens, N.Y, travels the world exploring caves. In 1993, as he descended into a Ukrainian cave, he came across buttons and other evidence of habitation. “These objects were someone’s life,” he reflects. “I had to find ... who lived there.”

Like the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” the narrative of “No Place on Earth” is built around an online search. Googling lends suspense in this new subgenre of documentaries.

In December 2002, Nicola received an email from the son-in-law of a Ukrainian Jew, now living in the Bronx, who hid from the Gestapo in that same cave and another one nearby. From October 1942 until May 1943, 38 Jews from the village of Koro­lowka lived under German occupation. Now years later, Nicola accompanies a few of them with their children and grandchildren to revisit the caves.

This heroic story line draws on “We Fight to Survive,” the 1960 memoir by survivor Esther Stermer, and a 1993 magazine article Nicola co-authored with writer-photographer Peter Lane Taylor. In 2007, Nicola wrote a children’s book titled “The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story.”

Director Janet Tobias — a veteran news producer for CBS, ABC and PBS — stages much of this adventure-style documentary as a docudrama without dialogue. Her co-writer Paul Laikin is among the cast of 41 re-creating the events, with some voiceover, in more accessible Hungarian caves. Her crew included Eduard Grau, who shot “Buried,” and Cesar Charlone, the cinematographer for “Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains.”

“No Place on Earth” deserves respect for honoring the ordeals of these survivors. How they maintained their morale in this subterranean world is amazing. So too are the anecdotes about their above-ground helpers and betrayers. “Not one person came out to greet us,” recalls one survivor after soldiers on the Russian front advanced. Not surprisingly, they all moved away, settling in Montreal and elsewhere. Nicola had heard only rumors of Jews on his trips to the region in the ’90s.

But the film indulges in sentimental and sensational tropes. The manipulative touches do more than dis­­­­­­tract, they irk. This story could have been retold without resorting to all the unfortunate formulas used in prime-time and cable fare.

Bill Stamets is a free-lance writer and critic.

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