Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Search - 1948

The Search (1948) is tenderly filmed.  The plot of the story carries the weight of the world and the eternal suffering of children during war, but lifts our hearts, though they may be breaking, as if on wings of angels.  Those angels are UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation) workers, and a young GI, and even us, if we have taken this movie to heart and take something away from it.

This is the fourth post in our series on how Hollywood depicted children during World War II.  This time, we leave the well-fed American kids behind, and step back to Europe in the aftermath of war.  It is said that the first casualty of war is truth.  The final byproduct is refugees. 

We encounter a small boy, one of the millions of refugees after World War II who have been released from concentration camps.  He is brought with nameless others to an UNRRA central tracing bureau to be processed and, if possible, reunited with relatives searching for them.  The movie takes on documentary-like qualities as we follow the children upon their arrival, sleeping in a boxcar on top of each other, ragged, sallow, starving, and sick—and terrified of the UNRRA personnel in uniform.  It is how they began their journey to the concentration camps; it is how the war ends for them.

Aline MacMahon, one of Hollywood’s finest and most valuable players, is in charge and interviews the kids in many languages.  Ivan Jandl plays Karel, a boy who was separated from his mother at Auschwitz.  His father and sister are dead.  He does not speak, only automatically repeats, “Ich weiss nicht,” (I don’t know) to answers put to him.  He is like a zombie, wooden, haunted, and barely able to function.  He also suffers from amnesia from the trauma of the concentration camp.  His number is tattooed on his arm.

In a moment of panic, he and another boy escape and wander the ruins of this German city.  Attempting to cross a river, the other boy drowns.  Though director Fred Zinnemann crafts a gentle telling of the story, it is nevertheless unblinking in its frank observations of the tragedies we witness.  Karel loses only his knitted cap in the water, and when that is recovered by UNRAA staff, they believe him to have drowned as well.

Alone now, Karel wanders aimlessly, until he meets Montgomery Clift, an Army engineer, part of the army of occupation.  Clift feeds him, takes him back to the building he shares billeting with Wendell Corey.  In days to come, the boy is cleaned, dressed in new clothes, and Clift teaches him English by naming objects in pictures torn from magazines.  Karel seems contented, but he still cannot emotionally or by memory connect with his past.  Clift wants to take him back to America.

That involves tremendous red tape. 
Eventually, he will take him to the UNRAA camp to help facilitate his adoption of Karel, whom he calls Jim.  This was Montgomery Clift’s first film, and he is a marvel of natural and riveting screen presence.  Many of his joking remarks and responses to the boy seem ad libbed and he has a wonderful off-the-cuff and in the moment delivery.  He is a lighthearted young man, quick with a funny quip, but the deeper he becomes involved with the boy the more sober he becomes.  (And his character may remind us of his role in The Big Lift-1950, which we covered here.) When he tries to form a plan to get the boy to the U.S., Wendell Corey counters that it is impractical and the rules impeding this are necessary: “We’d have all of Europe in America if we didn’t have those rules.”

Clift responds, “So what?”

“You’re the one who used to make cracks about those filthy DP’s, remember?”

“I did?"

“Yes, you did.  Not so very long ago, either.”

Clift answers, “Well, now I’ve learned something.”

Indeed he has, and we still struggle with that argument today.

Mr. Clift has a nice, easy rapport with the Ivan Jandl, who was from Czechoslovakia and only made a handful of films.  He is a splendid interpreter of this role: unaffected, natural, and perhaps wise beyond his years in his intuitive relationship with the camera.  It is also a wise choice on the part of director Zinnemann to follow the boy with long scenes of no dialogue.  We see deeper into the child’s world if we are allowed to adopt his mindset and we can do this more easily if we take on his silent observation of the world around him.

One of the most affecting scenes in the movie is when Wendell Corey’s wife and young son arrive to share their housing.  Clift will be rotated back to the U.S. very soon, but Corey will be part of the army of occupation for a while yet.  Karel observes Corey’s son interacting with his mother.  At one point, the son cries and the mother comforts him.  This triggers a long dormant memory in Karel.  He asks Clift, “What is a mother?”  Charmingly inventive, Clift points to one of the magazine photos thumbtacked on the wall of their room that he has used to teach the boy English.  It is a photo of a long-eared funny-looking bloodhound sitting next to a smaller pup.  Presumably, he has used this photo to teach the boy the word “dog.”  Now Clift points to the bigger dog and says, “This is the mother.”  Then to the puppy, “This is the child.”

Karel chews on this a while, and grows distressed. Looking at the photo, his expression becomes pained, and he struggles with a scene that remains in his mind of a woman who had been with him in the camp.  As he sits and almost like an automaton, draws lines on a paper, he suddenly remembers the pattern of the chain link fence in the camp.  Earlier in the film, we are given a flashback scene of when his mother was taken from him, separated into a different camp.  She calls to him, and kisses him through the small opening in the chain link fence.

It all comes back to Karel now, and he sobs, and he demands that Clift help him find his mother.  “Where is my mother?  I have a mother.  I know I have a mother.  Where is she?”  Clift believes Karel’s mother is dead, and tries to distract him with talk of going to America.  Karel is angry, and sneaks out in the night.

We follow him again across the ruins of war-torn Germany, until eventually; Clift finds him and takes him to the UNRRA camp where he hopes to begin the paperwork of adopting Karel.

Earlier in the film, we are shown that Karel’s mother, played by celebrated opera singer Jarmila Novotna, whom we also saw here in The Great Caruso (1951), has survived and is searching for him.  In a nail-biting series of circumstances, they continually miss each other.  Aline MacMahon helps to put together clues, and we are given the gift of finally seeing mother and son reunited.  I don’t know if we could take this movie if that didn’t happen.

The Search is really a very simple story, simply filmed, about very complicated geopolitical issues, and that is the wonder of it.  It allows us to see a large picture on a very small scale and connect with it in a personal way.  The movie was filmed, at least in part, in Europe so the location shooting is stark and genuine.  We do not have the optimistic and jingoistic approach of helping children in wartime as we saw in The Piped Piper.  We were still fighting the war then.  We are in the aftermath now, where at least as far as the mind of a child refugee is concerned, the world is borderless, without nationalities or allegiances—but it is not free.  It is a nightmarish maze of confusing obstacles.  Every grownup who displays compassion is a monumental hero.  

Come back next Thursday when we finish our series with a look at another March of Time short subject, a world away and back to America with the dawn of a new age—not the nuclear age, but the Teen Age.

Our previous posts in this series are:

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.


Caftan Woman said...

Why are the simplest and purist of motivations made so complicated? People are so wonderful and so aggravating.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Well said, CW.

Along These Lines ... said...

Wendell Corey, one of those great character actors who was everywhere

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Yeah. Always good to see Wendell Corey in the cast.

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