Dir.  Fred Zinnemann. USA 1948

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I first saw Fred Zinnemann's The Search when I was 12 years old. It was an experience that connected me for the first time with other children in different parts of the world whose suffering I could hardly have imagined. Aside from newspaper pictures of the war and the occasional newsreel, I had never before seen the real face of war, children with sallow looking faces, their clothes in tatters wandering among the bricks and stones of bombed out buildings, many without parents who had been through the most devastating experiences of war that one can imagine. It brought tears to my eyes then as well as each time I have seen it over the years.

Set in the U.S. zone of Berlin shortly after World War II, The Search dramatizes the plight of the children left behind, children known euphemistically as DPs, displaced persons, orphans without a place to call home. The film focuses on nine-year-old Karel Malik (Ivan Jandl), the son of a doctor, who was sent to Auschwitz with his mother Hannah (Jarmila Novotna). Both Karel's father and sister were killed, and the boy was separated from his mother, saying goodbye to her through an iron fence, an image that remained deeply embedded in his mind. When the war was over, children by the busload were sent to temporary camps where attempts were made to reunite them with a surviving family member.  

A compassionate relief worker, Mrs. Murray (Aline MacMahon) questions the little Czech boy in tattered clothes, but he refuses to say anything except “Ich weiß nicht” (I don't know). Frightened by the sound of the exhaust from the ambulance bringing the children to an UNRRA camp, he escapes with a friend but he drowns in the river, leaving Karel alone to scavenge for food among the ruins. All this while, a tired but determined Hannah tries to find her son by going from camp to camp but to no avail. Fond of children, she eventually takes a job at a relief camp, hoping that one day her boy will turn up. Her hopes are raised when she finds a Jewish boy (Leopold Markowsky) who has taken the name of Karel Malik, but sadly it is not her son.

Looking at a U.S. soldier sitting in his jeep eating lunch, the starving boy peeks from behind the crumbled facade of a building. The soldier, Steve, a bridge engineer played by Montgomery Clift, spots the boy and offers him some food but he is too frightened to accept. His appetite gets the better of his fear, however, and the two become tentative friends, although the boy refuses to talk or give his name. Steve persuades him to come back to the home that he shares with his roommate Fisher (Wendell Corey) where he names him “Jim” and begins a slow, uphill battle to gain his trust and teach him English. The performance by Clift, his first to be released, elevates the film to a new level and is one of the highlights of his too brief career. In the film's most heartbreaking moment, Jim asks Steve what a mother is.

Though The Search is sentimental and perhaps ends too abruptly for modern tastes, it never seems forced or phony and every bit of its emotion is earned. Jarmila Novotna's portrayal of the mother is a performance of dignity. Though she never allows it to run her life, the pain is clearly written on her face,. Jandl, who received a Special Oscar but never acted again in a feature film, is remarkably real and natural, never once acting like a “movie child”. The Search is a sad film but, in its demonstration of determination and courage, it is a rich and rewarding experience. Though the film depicts a particular moment in history, it strikes a universal tone, ringing true for millions of lost children who have been the collateral damage of war.


Howard Schumann

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