Chris Nicola is just your average avuncular guy with an amiable personality and an almost stereotypical New Yorker accent. He’s also an enthusiastic caver, and while rooting around an underground hole in the Ukraine, Nicola stumbles upon an odd discovery: a lady’s shoe. Intrigued, he begins to inquire among the locals—at which point a tale of two families, the Wexlers and the Stermers, begins to unfold. Both clans faced an uncertain fate when the Nazis started rounding up the region’s Jews; both took refuge in the caves, moving from one dark, dank subterranean lair to another. Their entire odyssey lasted over a year and a half.
It’s an amazing ode to endurance under duress, which only makes the squandering of such an incredible yarn in Janet Tobias’s ill-conceived documentary that much more confusing. Most filmmakers might have chosen to intercut Nicola’s detective work with interviews from survivors (each one compelling) and dramatic licenses, so maybe she’s simply picking the road less traveled by filling almost all of the first hour with repetitive, History Channel–level re-creations. Regardless, she’s remarkably apt at deflating any sense of narrative tension, momentum or inherent sense of desperation in what is, by default, a moving testament to the triumph of the human spirit. By the time Nicola reappears late in the game to lead folks on a trip back to the scene, the questionable choices and threadbare production have taken their toll. This story is both uplifting and awe-inspiring. It deserves to be told better.
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