The Search (1948, Fred Zinnemann)

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It was a different time. In 1948, this heartstring-tugger about a seemingly orphaned boy liberated from Auschwitz and his desperate search afterward for his mother, with the compassionate aid of an American serviceman, struck a sufficient chord with American and European audiences that, as would happen so often with movies about World War II, its awkward melodramatic flourishes were swept away and forgiven. Director Fred Zinnemann was quite capable of the meticulous and genuinely emotional intrigue that a story like this might seem to demand, but here he lets us get washed up in sentimentality — and yet somehow, it seems justified. The Search feels very much like a salve for a world still reeling from many years of horror, the repercussions of which were only just starting to take hold. If not anything close to a great movie, it feels like a necessary one.

It’s during an attempt by UN officials to rescue transient children that the boy, Karel (Ivan Jandi), panics due to the smell of exhaust fumes he mistakes for grim memories of Nazi gas chambers — he jumps off a truck along with another boy, who does not survive, and wanders until happening upon a kind-hearted but impatient army engineer (Montgomery Clift), loafing and eating and sharing food. Thereafter, the adult Steve forms an uneasy kinship with Karel, labeling him Jim because he can’t determine his name, tries to teach him English and eventually begins to help him seek out his lost mother — to determine if she is even still living (she was sent to another camp when they were separated). All the while, Zinnemann gives the parallel story of Karel’s mother (Aline MacMahon) determinedly scouring the countryside and all of the UN camps to try and find a trace of her son. It builds to what is clearly designed as a hand-wringing fever pitch.

This kind of baldfaced heartstring-tugging liberal guilt is preferable to something like Gentleman’s Agreement, at least, though it isn’t nearly as incisive or haunting as you’d expect given its pedigree. Its greatest stroke of art, in fact, is the debut performance by Clift — muttering, masculine, casual but unmistakably genuine and warm, his easy camaraderie with his fellow soldiers and with Karel is intensely believable. In fact, it may be his most persuasive and pure work on film. Otherwise, the insights into the ravages of a continent sent into unspeakable crisis, as well as the systematic cruelty of a regime that must have still seemed scarcely believable, come across as second-hand — plays for chill bumps and tears that render real tragedy into commodity. Hollywood can always be counted on for such pandering falseness.

Yet that doesn’t mean the pandering is badly intentioned, and even if the film seems hollow now, its benefit to audiences of the late ’40s is easy to detect. Besides, there are moments of aching and terrible truth: early on, the sequences of the children reacting in instictive horror to everyone in a uniform — including doctors and friendly soldiers — and their impassioned distrust of the idea of being lined up and loaded onto a truck are sobering and heartbreaking, and almost palpably accurate. After that, despite the time and place, The Search is basically a separation-anxiety saga that could come from any cloth.

What would undoubtedly seem mawkish and overwrought now was probably shocking and harrowing then, but that doesn’t excuse the terribly unnecessary voiceover narration in the first act. (No offense intended if you were a fan of The Artist, but the news that Michel Hazanavicius’ remake of this film is set to compete for the Palme d’Or should strike dread into the heart of anyone who can’t deal with manipulative, massively popular schmaltz.) Not surprisingly from the writer of Marie Louise (who won another Oscar here, just as inexplicably — neither film has a particularly strong story or script), the deeper message is that war continues to victimize long after the fighting ends.

Aside from Clift’s vividly angsty entrance into his place in the sun, modern audiences will be most interested in the astonishing photography of bombed-out Germany (cinematographer Emil Berna was also inherited from Marie-Louise; in some respects the two films are almost interchangeably similar). Zinnemann believes enough in the story that the film is compelling and agreeably natural despite its easy sentimentality — and if you can place yourself into the emotionally fraught context from whence it came, especially if you can fill in some of the missing factual and from-the-heart pieces yourself, you may find it quite harrowing.

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