Any knowledge of director Fred Zinnemann only aids in informing The Search. Formerly living in a Jewish family in Austria, he would immigrate to the bright lights of Hollywood in the 1930s only to have both his parents killed in the Holocaust. So if you think he had no stake in this picture you would be gravely mistaken.
Like Carol Reed’s Third Man of the following year, Fred Zinnemann’s film does an impeccable job in its opening moments placing us in a landscape that feels all but tangible. Improved by true post-war locales, The Search gives audiences a fairly frank depiction of the trauma and destruction left in the wake of such an all-encompassing wave of carnage like WWII.
At least in this area alone, there is no sense that this is a facade or something fake and done up to look real. There’s little of that. Not least among the casualties are children displaced from all different nations and backgrounds. Subsisting without families through much of the war.
Now, with the clouds dissipating there is work to be done. It’s the task of understaffed personnel to begin sorting through all the pieces to try and get everyone back where they need to be. It seems an insurmountable job but they get on as best as they can.
Mrs. Murray is one of the workers we get to know, a woman with both a sense of pragmatic industry but also an underlying warmth. She knows if her job is done well, there will be many children given far better lives. She does everything in her power toward those ends.
Carrying a few points of reference from Aline MacMahon’s early career, it truly is a joy to watch her fall into this role which is a stark departure from the likes of One Way Passage (1932) or Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Certainly, it’s less flashy but no less meaningful. She makes it count.
The pure ambiguities created by language barriers is made palpable and for American viewers, there is a narrator but little in the way of interpretation. So much of what goes on is either left unsaid or must be taken with a grain of salt. That’s compounded by the fact the reticent children are afraid men in uniforms might be SS troopers or any word they let slip will be subsequently used to send them away to a concentration camp.
While it’s near impossible to take on two viewpoints at once, at any rate, we begin to understand not only Mrs. Murray’s predicament but also the well-founded fears of these displaced youths. That’s what leads one group of children, crammed into an ambulance marked with an ominous red cross, to scatter at the first opportunity. One includes a pale-faced boy named Karel who has remained all but silent during his initial questioning and yet his will to survive is insurmountable. Still, one needs food to survive and he doesn’t have any.
This problem is what prompts the initial meeting of the two figures who we might consider our heroes. It actually happens 40 minutes in and it nearly doesn’t amount to anything at all. Sitting in his jeep, lazily kicked back, eating a sandwich, is an army engineer named Steve (Montgomery Clift) who is soon being shipped back home.
He sees a small body pop up behind some rubble obviously eyeing his lunch. The boy’s afraid to take a handout and so the soldier puts his jeep in gear to drive off but thinking better of it, he turns around and tosses the boy his sandwich. Here we have the genesis of their curious relationship, at first tenuous, because Karel has learned to fear other people and their lack of formal communication lines makes mutual understanding even more difficult.
Though not as intense as his most revered parts, Monty Clift provides a genuine charm to the role, an all but effortless job at character building. Young Ivan Jandl knew no English going into the shoot but this same undoctored quality makes the opening sequences all the more imperative. He and Clift build a rapport that’s right there in front of us.
Initially, Karel lashes out thinking he is being held prisoner again. Steve tries to get him to understand his newfound freedom and when that is established, next comes the acquisition of language which the bright boy picks up quickly. One could say that The Search is at its finest when the pair is stuck in a space together. I’m not sure about others but I resonate with these scenes. The moments where a language barrier necessitates some form of universal understanding. Words have no meaning. Like in Film itself, actions can be far more universal than any amount of exquisite dialogue. For example, chocolate tastes “good.” Alcohol smells “bad.”
Together the soldier and the boy form a bond to the point Karel follows him around like a lost puppy. He doesn’t want to be abandoned. Not again. Of course, we know Steve must ship out soon… Meanwhile, Mrs. Murray enlists the help of a concentration camp survivor (Jarmila Novotná) who is looking determinedly for her son — the dramatic irony all but apparent, if it wasn’t already.
As Steve begins to teach “Jim” English lessons, he and his buddy Jerry (Wendell Corey) try and get some news on the boy’s origins. And all they have to go on is the telling tattoo on his forearm. It’s the arrival of family from stateside that sets something off. A switch goes on inside of Jim’s brain and he realizes he needs to find his “mother” because he comes to understand what that word means and that his is missing.
The Search endangers itself with a melodramatic turn of events and to a degree, they do come. Speaking for myself, I was a most agreeable recipient if that’s what it was. With the trills of angelic voices and a final maternal embrace — the conclusion the entire film has been charted for — some emotional manipulation might be on hand. However, in a period of rebuilding, though the past must not be forgotten, nevertheless, there is a deep abiding need for hope. I would like to think that The Search is a film acknowledging precisely that and offering some solace.
Out of all the bombed out buildings, emaciated children racked with trauma, and horrors upon horrors, there is still something that can and must be clung to. When we are lost and alone, we can be found and returned to the place where we belong. There is no need to wander aimlessly because we have a home. Whether or not you believe this picture to be a purveyor of authenticity, Zinnemann has provided a revelatory parable of genuine sensitivity. I for one admire its aspirations greatly even if they might be imperfect. Such a time calls for this kind of hope.