Thursday, October 11, 2012

Search and Despair: "The Search" (1948)

Iconic director Fred Zinnemann used actual German locations to film this sweet little story about a lost boy in the aftermath of World War II.

Karel (Ivan Jandl) was a happy little boy, the son of a doctor. The Nazis came to power, and Karel, a Czech, was shipped off to Auschwitz with his mother while his father and sister were murdered. At the camp, he was separated from his mother, seeing her for the last time through a wire fence.

After the war, an overworked relief worker named Mrs. Murray (Aline MacMahon) tries to help Karel. He is accompanied by a friend, who confirms that Karel never speaks except to say "I don't know." His young mind is blank after the experiences he has been through. Thousands of orphaned children and their mothers wait to be reunited, an almost impossible task in the days before DNA and computer terminals. The children are put on trucks and ambulances to be shipped to another camp where they can go about trying to be young again. The frightened children on Karel's ambulance mistake the exhaust fumes for deadly gas, and escape. Karel's friend drowns in a river, and Karel's cap is washed downstream, leading the relief workers to think he is dead as well.

Karel's mother, Hannah (Jarmila Novotna), walks the lonely destroyed infrastructure of Germany looking for Karel. She stops at every children's relief camp she can find, looking for him. She stops in at Mrs. Murray's camp, and is told the grim news and shown the cap Karel was wearing when he was thought drowned. Hannah then takes a job at the camp to help the other children, and maybe still find Karel.

For being the star of the picture, Montgomery Clift does not show up until a third of the way through the film. He plays a soldier named Steve, a bridge engineer who befriends Karel and takes him home to live with him and his roommate Fisher (Wendell Corey). Steve is due to be shipped out in a matter of days, making room for Fisher's arriving family. Steve teaches Karel English, and names him "Jim," since Karel never gives a name of his own. The Fisher family arrives, and Karel has serious questions about mothers. He is told that his mother perished at the concentration camp, but you just know somehow Hannah and Karel are going to find each other again, soon.

Fred Zinnemann does an expert job of directing this film. Always a strong director, there are many scenes involving Karel that take place with no dialogue at all. The black and white cinematography is crisp, but no effort is made to pretty up the bombed out surroundings or the scared orphans. As a country, we often need to be reminded about the horrors of World War II, and Zinnemann succeeds. The screenwriters resist the modern plot device of having Hannah and Karel just miss each other on the streets of Berlin. No one gets into a cab as their lost loved one gets out on the other side, or anything that forced, and I am grateful. The lovely Jarmila Novotna does an incredible job of wearing Hannah's pain on her face. Montgomery Clift is just fine as Steve, not expecting the downside of raising a child when Karel escapes from the house and tries to run back to Auschwitz to look for his mother. The real discovery here is Jandl. He was an unknown actor, and "The Search" was his only film. He died in the mid-80's at the age of 50. He deservedly won a special Oscar for his performance, it is amazing how natural he is. He never crosses over into cutesy territory.

My one complaint is that the ending is rather abrupt. Maybe the film makers did not expect the audience to get so wrapped up with these characters, or that we needed more closure than we are given. This is minor, however.

"The Search" is a rich film dealing with a horrible situation. It is sad that even in today's "improved" modern world, somewhere a child and a parent wait to be reunited, torn apart by war. The search continues. (* * * * *) out of five stars.