18 June 2017

The Search (1948)

The Search is a Heartbreaking Must See
By Kristin Battestella

In 1948’s The Search, GI engineer Ralph Stevenson (Montgomery Clift) takes in the displaced nine year old Karel (Ivan Jandl) in post-war Berlin. When unable to find the young Auschwitz survivor's family through the Central Tracing Bureau, Steve goes through the lengthy paperwork to have “Jim” return to America with him. However, Karel's mother Hanna Malik (Jarmila Novotná) is likewise going through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, spending months walking from camp to camp searching for her son.

Every time The Search is on television, I say I won't tune in, for two hours later I am crying from this inevitably sad yet heartwarming little piece from director Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity). Relief groups are corralling children, trying to find out who they are and where they came from before the concentration camps, and this rescued road will be difficult for children understandably still afraid of vehicles collecting them to be gassed. I wouldn't blame anyone for turning off The Search before it really starts thanks to early Oliver Twist style assembly lines feeding starving kids as they recount their time as slave labor sorting the clothes of the gassed by size and finding a relative's clothes among them. The narration is also odd today – no voiceover is really needed because the visuals are so strong – but the warm female voice emphasizes this plight without requiring more children to perform more dialogue in the various languages. Besides, their pitiful little states are enough to make one wonder if all these tiny kids are really survivors themselves. Military initials and group acronyms invoke a systematic sense of order as back and forth interviews and translations reveal important details, and the names of the concentration camps standout regardless of the languages spoken or other almost insurmountable communication barriers. The flashback of the Malik family singing together may seem like a backtrack breaking the emotion established, but it's critical to see their pleasantness cut short by the dreaded knock on the door. The family's split is also montaged somewhat quickly, however, a child crying “Mommy!” is terrible enough. The Search has scenes with no English spoken, yet the viewer understands every youthful fear happening. More fatal action crescendos speak for themselves, and disturbing water scenery tops a wrenching first act before introducing our mother's in media res search. It's important to have an adult breather from the child tough, but seemingly routine inquiries turn into difficult regret to inform you bonding and tears as one woman gives another mother the worse news she could possibly receive. The audience has information the parallel double whammies do not – we know both the boy and his mother are safe while each thinks the other is dead. Cut my heart it out will hurt less! 

Clean cut all-American hero Montgomery Clift doesn't appear until a half hour into The Search, suave in his uniform with a cool jeep and forthcoming passage home. After feeding Karel on the street, Steve initially keeps the wild child at arms length, frustrated over their trial and error communication and wondering if the boy is holding out on simple yes or no answers. However, Steve becomes increasingly aware of what Karel must have experienced, and doesn't tell the newly coined “Jim” the misinformation of his mother's death. He's ordered to hand over the boy and Steve's ready to leave, but he wonders what will happen to his charge if he goes. He doesn't have the facts needed to adopt the boy yet goes through the process nonetheless. Steve learns not to joke about procedures anymore, going from nonchalant to angry at red tape, “You're so official you have to go through channels just to open a door.” Sure, the metaphor of this army engineer rebuilding destroyed bridges is obvious amid Abraham Lincoln school lessons, a dated notion that America is tops, and that learning English will get you anywhere in the world, but so what. There are wonderful lighthearted moments between our found bachelors, too, “Even in England they understand English...well, sort of.” Steve cancels his ticket home, willing to wait for another passage until Jim's permits clears, but he has job commitments in US that can't be postponed. The now sentimental Steve isn't ready to just leave Jim behind at the relief camp with a promise they will see each other again someday. Devoutly Method Clift toured real camps, lived in barracks, and wore fatigues, going overboard annoying his director with his own dialogue rather than following the script. He is the leading man of the picture yet not a star so bright he's above telling the best tale, and it takes a great actor to accept being secondary in a movie really about a little boy. Today's actor would award bait chew such tour de force man pain, but Clift is effortlessly natural at holding nothing back and believably bittersweet as a sudden parent putting a child first regardless of himself. This is the first of his four Oscar nominations, and only an elite big name dozen have been so honored in their debut release. I will tell anyone who listens to watch Montgomery Clift's seventeen movies, but if starting here with The Search does not convince you to see the rest of his films, nothing will.

The Search does not have a big ensemble with any other major names but opera star Jarmila Novotná is perfectly cast as the heart wrenchingly relatable Mrs. Malik. A hat, bag, umbrella, good shoes, and clean coat are all she needs to walk in search of her son, and it's difficult to watch her suffer when we know he is safe with what could be a good American opportunity. Hanna doesn't want to disturb the church on a Sunday with her inquiry, but she knows enough English to repeat the story of who she is, where she is from, and which little boy she is seeking. By time we meet her, she has already been searching for seven months, following a lead to a dead end or striking out with another tidbit of information and redirected as usual to the Central Tracing Bureau. However, she is nothing without her child and won't give up hope. So many match her son's description – names on a card, no picture to show, and mistaken possibilities lead to her helping a scared Jewish child hiding as an choir boy before silently resuming her quest. Although months have passed, to the viewer Hanna's arrival at her son's transition camp has cinematically just missed him. Reunions are happening – even coincidental ones right on the street – but the audience wants to see all these pieces put together onscreen. We're angry for Mrs. Malik even when she remains relatively subdued and patient, quiet and weary. She can't take much more of this journey but this search for her son is the only thing carrying her. Clues to be found by his little cap lead to more misinformation, even an apparent confirmation that her Karel is dead, leading to her breakdown and even an implied suicide attempt. She can give up her quest – no one would blame her if she took the necessary and worthy job of helping other children offered to her at UNNRA. Working to stabilize other children and send them home could in fact be the healing she needs. As a mother, however, Hanna holds out hope, taking up her umbrella and continuing her eponymous duty whether it breaks her or not.

Young Ivan Jandl gives a darling little performance in The Search, innocent and raw with a distant stare as he repeatedly says “I don’t know” – almost blissfully unaware what has happened to him. Karel can't remember how to use a spoon and collapses onto a long forgotten pillow. He doesn't understand his own language or know his name but is terrified when identified to come forward by the little hat on his head. Karel's embarrassed by the numbers on his arm and tries to cover them with a ripped sleeve. Innocent encounters trigger fearful memories, and he swims away from help before resisting a soldier who would heal his blistered feet. Eventually the renamed Jim understands he is able to open a gate, leave, or return for care. He learns to say no to alcohol and yes to chocolate, and it's simply glee to finally hear his voice in adorable little scenes identifying basic items. He's a smart kid learning a new language and soon befriends an American boy with no notion of differences between them. The Search progresses in its middle with more traditional home life scenes, school lessons, and at the dinner table conversations – Jim doesn't always understand it all, but he's happy to receive shoes as a surprise gift and doesn't mind living in tiny attic apartment with Steve. After all, they've both had far worse billets. Jim doesn't know what the English word “mother” means when he hears it, but remembers what happened to him when he sees another child comforted by his mother. He goes from silent and broken to adamant and proactive wanting answers about his family he may never find. Jim is not lost or interested in America, but he has lost his mother and needs Steve's help to find her. This is a stunning performance recognized with a Special Juvenile Oscar traversing the emotional spectrum and then some with total honesty and on camera purity: “I had a mother. I know I had a mother. Where is she?”

The austere black and white on location German filming and international production for The Search hits home the wartime broken and divided with an almost documentary feeling – a re-enactment of something that really happened complete with a disclaimer thanking the US Army for allowing filming in the occupation zone. The raw footage of shelled buildings, crumbling walls, ruinous stonework, dusty barely there roads, rubble piles, fallen bridges, and concrete heaps to nowhere is a scenery study unto itself. Up close shots of fences with blurred masses on either side in and out of focus would stray into earlier surreal and German expressionist designs, but they are unfortunately realistic frames, and the mid-century technology is itself wartime outdated rather than nostalgic with older phones and earlier typewriters. Pen and paper are tough to come by, one can't find an envelope to mail a letter, people have to wait months for a letter response, and old magazine pictures are thumb-tacked to the wall to use as educational flashcards amid slide rules and Iodine medicine. Zoom ins on applications with crossed out boxes, question marks, and “unknown” answers and typing a letter to the Central Tracing Bureau asking for relatives of a nothing but a number put the situation in bold print. Numerous languages including Czech, German, French, Polish, and Hebrew songs aren't subtitled onscreen, either – adding authenticity as we wait through onscreen translations, go-betweens, or simply not knowing as pieces and tales of missing parents, deceased family, and children who don't know who they are repeat from one language to the next or not at all. The Warner Archive Collection DVD itself has no subtitles and a fitting bare bones lacking. One one hand, I wish there were retrospectives on Clift or the so close to home filming atmosphere, yet I'm glad there are no companion features to The Search. Nothing else needs to be said, no billboards, viral marketing campaigns, and promo tours like today – this is simply a picture that was made to speak for itself and amen. 

Usually when I’ve seen a movie a dozen times, I can begin my notes with the basics before a critical eyed rewatch. With The Search, however, I found my immediate thoughts to be emotional memories. Though gut wrenching with Holocaust history, orphan plots, and post-war destruction that can still be sensitive subjects to many audiences, it takes repeat viewings to pick up all the no such thing as coincidence coincidences and stay the course religious undercurrents in The Search with both Christianity and Judaism used to shelter those of a different belief and help one seek what they must find. Despite somewhat dated or saccharin constructs, this Best Story Oscar winner with nominees for Actor, Director, and Written Screenplay amid other awards and praise should not be as obscure as it is. Today's cinema is so stylish in its re-creation of the past that it is often too false or afraid to be raw and can’t capture the truth is seeks, but there is a small joy in unpolished pictures made so close to the war that take you through the emotional ringer – and The Search is a necessary film as catharsis as great cinema should be.

1 comment:

David Rayner said...

I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed in this excellent review. “The Search”, filmed from June to November, 1947 and released in 1948 in the USA and 1950 in the UK, is one of the finest and most moving films ever made and the then ten years old Ivan Jandl thoroughly deserved his Oscar and his Golden Globe for his truly amazing performance. Likewise, Montgomery Clift should have received an Oscar for his performance, but didn't, although he was nominated.

I challenge anyone who hasn't got a heart of stone not to cry while watching this. Yes, it is that moving. But it puzzles me why the British Board of Film Censors at the time passed it with a 'U' certificate (suitable for children), as many children would have been very disturbed; frightened and upset by it. Especially the scenes where the four years old Karel, separated from his mother in a concentration camp, is clinging to the fence crying out for her as the Germans drag her away from him and the terrifying scene of the eleven years old boy, attempting to escape, who tries to swim across a dangerous river and goes under and drowns, his limp, lifeless little body flowing over a weir.

There was no 'X' certificate at that time, and it wouldn't be introduced until around 1952. But I would at least have given it an 'A' certificate for Adult Audiences, although children could be allowed into the cinema to see it at the discretion of a responsible parent or guardian. I suppose today, it would be classified as a PG.

David Rayner, Stoke on Trent, England, Friday, March 16th, 2018.