‘THE Search’ is a heart-searing drama shown right after World War II about ill-fated children in Europe who were orphaned by their parents or just separated away from their parents by the Holocaust. It’s from the acclaimed director Fred Zinnemann, who later would do “High Noon” and “A Man for All Seasons” and other award-winning films.
It’s also the first movie of Montgomery Clift and he got an Oscar best actor nomination for his performance, the first of many but he never bagged the award. We saw another movie about a family separated by World War II when we were a kid, “Three Came Home” (1950, about an American family in Borneo separated from each other by the Japanese War) and it’s a bonafide tearjerker, but we never got to see “The Search”.
When we were living in New York for a year, we frequently tuned in to the Turner Classics station looking for it. And we saw so many classic movies, but we never got lucky enough to see “The Search”, 1948. We’re so glad we finally saw it on video and it’s really worthwatching, if only for the footage showing all the ruined buildings and the devastation in post-war Germany caused by all the bombings.
Another reason why the film is remarkable is because of the performance of the 9-year old boy who played the lead role, Ivan Jandl. We don’t know if he had any previous acting experience but he acted like a real PRO. Monty Clift might have been nominated in the Oscars but it’s really the boy who is the lead character as the film starts and ends with him. Monty Clift, who’s still very skinny here, comes in about 20 minutes into the movie.
The boy Ivan is actually from Prague and the Oscars decided to give him an honorary trophy, but Czeckoslovakia was by then under communist rule and he was no longer allowed to leave the country and attend the academy awards. He must be 80 years old by now.
The film starts with homeless children called Displaced Persons being transported by the United Nations to shelter camps where they are sorted out, fed and given lodging while looking for their lost or surviving families.
One of the boys is a blonde 9-year old who doesn’t speak that they don’t even know his name. In a flashback, he is shown to be Czech named Karel (Ivan Jandl) living with his family. The Nazis separated the boy from his mom, Hannah Malik (Jarmilla Novotna), and also his dad and sister who were taken separately.
Karel was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp and his last memory is his mom being dragged away from him through a fence. When he’s interviewed, the traumatized boy has only one answer to all questions, “I don’t know”, in his native language. Karel and the rest of the kids are later loaded into ambulances to be taken to other camps.
The kids are so scared as Nazis ambulances poison Jews and when they see small exhaust fumes, they panic and open the door, escaping and running away to various directions. Karel and his friend try to evade pursuing soldiers by swimming across a river.
Karel survives but his friend drowns. He lives in the ruins and scavengers for food. He befriends an American soldier-engineer, Steve (Monty Clift), who took him to his quarters, fed him, gave him clothes and shoes.
At first, he wouldn’t talk but, eventually, he warms up to Steve who becomes his protector and teaches him to speak in English, even giving him a new name, Jim. Steve is about to be sent back home and he decides to take Jim with him to America.
When Steve’s friend’s family come to join them, Karel/Jim sees the friend’s own son being close to his mother and he then remembers is own mom and asks Steve to take him to her, thinking she just lives nearby. When Steve says his mom is dead, he cries, runs away and tries to find her himself.
But it turns out Mrs. Malik is still alive and is all the while desperately searching for her son. How mother and son are finally reunited is the climax of the movie and Director Zinnemann is so astute in not milking the situation to make his viewers cry. You’ll know what we mean if you’d see the movie. In most sentimental films, they’ll exploit this final meeting to squeeze dry our lachrymal ducts but this one is so restrained.
But even now, as we recall it, we can’t help but be teary-eyed. Clift and Jandl have a good chemistry as caretaker and adopted son. Jandl has a stirring and powerfully sad presence as the young Karel. He brings out the tito or tita in you.
The film really touches the heart and the scenes showing the scarred city scapes of Germany after the war serves like a time capsule that should remind us all of how wars can be so cruel and deadly. It also shows how potent a storyteller Zinnemann in portraying both exterior and intimate scenes with easy eloqquence and how capable a mentor he is to his actors even to a little boy and his other kiddie co-stars who are all very good as they register understandable terror in that ambulance scene.