Movie Stars: Clift Became Hollywood’s Major Method Actor-Star before Brando

One of the first American films to deal with the Holocaust and its impact, Fred Zinnemann’s The Search is an emotionally moving, visually astute tale of a young Auschwitz survivor (played by Ivan Jandl) desperately searching for his mother in post-World War II Europe.

Jandl, who was discovered while singing with a choir in Prague, won a Special Oscar Award for “the outstanding juvenile performance of 1948,” a well-deserved recognition for a heartbreaking rendition of a boy who has lost his entire world—including identity, name (which he cannot remember) and ability for interpersonal communication.

Jandl was not allowed to attend the Oscar ceremonies, though it is not clear whether it was a result of his parents and/or authorities decision; Czechoslovakia was under strict communist regime. There were hopes that he would become a child star, but, according to my 1982 interview with Zinnemann, who kept in touch with Jandl for several years, he made one or two Czech films before disappearing into anonymity; Jandl died in Prague of illness in 1987, age 50.

The Search is notable for other reasons. It established the actor Montgomery Clift as a major talent. Having just shot Howard Hawks’s epic Western, Red River, opposite John Wayne, Clift became the brightest male star to conquer Hollywood and to promote Method Acting in the film industry, two years before Marlon Brando made a splash with his stunning debut in The Men, which was also helmed by Zinnemann. Though The Search was Clift’s second film, it was theatrically released before Red River.

The first to be made in Europe after WWII with an American director and some crew members, The Search was partially based on Europe’s Children, a book of photographs by Therese Bonney which chronicled war orphans. Though based on rigorous research of actual footage, the tale is largely fictionalized, written by Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler (Paul Jarrico also contributed to the script), who were Oscar-nominated for Motion Picture and Story and Screenplay, winning in the former category.

Roughly divided into three parts–each lasting a reel or so– the narrative is uneven, reflecting a series of anxieties on the part of the filmmakers and some compromises made in trying to make the admittedly tough and risky movie more accessible to the mass public. As a result, the film gets increasingly more conventional and the “happy ending” feels contrived and tacked on what is for the most part a realistic, semi-documentary picture.

The tale’s first part is the most authentic and touching, depicting trains bringing homeless children, labeled Displaced Persons (DP), who are then taken by Mrs. Murray (Aline MacMahon) and other United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) workers to a nearby transit camp.  Following procedures, the children are interviewed by UNRRA officials, whose goal is to identify them and reunite them–if possible–with their immediate families or relatives.  The children, who speak various languages, are scared, damaged, insecure, and highly suspicious, not knowing what to expect. Some kids perceive the benevolent workers as strict authoritarian figures—not unlike the Nazi officers who had imprisoned and tortured them.

The story soon centers on its protagonist, a young traumatized boy named Karel (Jandl) who is nine. Interrogated about his past, he responds to all the questions with the same brief and impersonal phrase –“Ich weiß nicht” (“I don’t know”), avoiding eye contact with the officers or other children.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Karel grew up in a wealthy and happy Czech family, who spend their evenings together playing classical music and singing.  The Nazis had deported Karel’s sister and father, a doctor, while he and his mother were sent to a concentration camp.

Like other families, mother and son are painfully separated, and Karel remembers in a moving flashback watching across a fence the last time he saw his beloved mother, a sight that has left an open wound and has made him fearfully suspicious of any fence, wall, door, or closed space.

After the war, Karel barely survives by scavenging for food with other homeless children. At the main camp, the children are divided into groups and loaded into trucks and ambulances, which transfer them to other camps. They are terrified, and some try to resist, as they remember how Nazis often used similar ambulances to take away and gas their victims.

Moreover, during the journey, the smell of exhaust fume causes some of the children to panic. Karel’s new friend Raoul manages to open the back door, and the children begin to scatter all over. Karel and Raoul try to swim across a river to escape from the UNRRA employees. Sadly and ironically, Raoul, who knows how to swim, dies by drowning, and Karel, who doesn’t know, survives by hiding in the reeds from the chasing officers. For several days, he lives like a frightened animal in burnt-out houses of the city, foraging for food in trash cans.

The film’s second part (and main story) concerns the bond that evolves between Karel and an ultra-kind and sensitive American army engineer named Ralph Stevenson, known as Steve (Montgomery Clift). Steve finds the nearly-starved Karel by the road, feeds the reluctant boy, and then forcefully takes him to his home, which he shares with another soldier (Wendell Corey). Hostile, scared, and suspicious, Karel tries to escape — until Steve convinces him (by leaving the doors open) of his genuine intention to take care of him. Steve calls the boy Jim, because Karel cannot recall his real name.

When Karel/Jim sees another boy with his mother, he begins to remember his own mother near a fence in the concentration camp. He runs away one evening thinking that the fence is nearby. When he finds a fence at a factory, he searches desperately — and, of course, in vain — for his mom among the workers.

Once again, Steve searches and finds Jim. In order to lessen his suffering, Steve lies, telling Jim that his mother is dead, hoping that with this knowledge he will stop searching for her and start building a new existence and a new identity. He also promises Jim that he will try to adopt him and take him to America to begin a new life there.

Meanwhile, through cross-cutting, the film switches to Karel’s mother, Mrs. Malik (Jarmila Novotná).  It turns out that she is alive, and that she, too, has been searching for her son. By chance — and this is the major contrived element in an otherwise realistic narrative — she begins working for Mrs. Murray at the same UNRRA camp where her son had been processed. After a while, she decides to leave the camp.

Steve takes Karel to the UNRRA camp before leaving for the States, hoping to send for him once the bureaucratic paperwork is completed. Mrs. Murray remembers the boy’s look, and suspecting that Jim is Karel, she hurries to the train station to bring Mrs. Malik back, but the train has already left.  She sighs with relief (and disbelief) when she spots Mrs. Malik on the train platform; Mrs. Malik had changed her mind and decided to stay.

Taking her back to the UNRRA camp, Mrs. Murray asks Mrs. Malik to greet the newest group of children. Steve tells Jim to join the new arrivals. Mrs. Malik begins to organize the children and bids them to follow her. Jim walks past without recognizing her. Mrs. Malik almost makes the same mistake, but then turns and calls, “Karel!” The boy and his mother are finally reunited.

Many of the scenes were shot amidst the actual ruins of post-war German cities, such as Ingolstadt, Nuremberg, and Würzburg. The film also utilized a Zurich studio as well UNRRA camps in the U.S.-occupied zone of Germany, thus capturing the terrors of refugees right after WWII. By shooting the picture in bombed-out German cities, Zinnemann achieved a more authentic, semi-documentary look.

This style was enhanced by mixing professional actors with nonprofessionals. Zinnemann always delighted in the fact that many reviewers and moviegoers assumed that Montgomery Clift, who didn’t look like a star in this picture, had been a real G.I. without any previous acting experience.

Zinnemann, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, had been working in Hollywood since 1930, directing shorts. But many people assumed that The Search was his American debut since it was the first time that he had received major recognition. The Search garnered him an award from the Directors Guild of America (DGA), an Oscar nomination, as well as a citation from the British Film Academy as “the best film embodying the principles of the United Nations Charter.”

Zinnemann would maintain his A-list status as a director throughout the 1950s, with such films as the 1952 Gary Cooper western, High Noon, and especially From Here to Eternity, which swept most of the 1953 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay. The film’s five acting nominations included a second Best Actor nod for Montgomery Clift again playing a sensitive soldier.