Search, The (1948): Montgomery Clift Shines in Zinnemann’s Oscar nominated Holocaust Tale

MGM (Praesens Films)

Montgomery Clift made a striking screen debut in “The Search” as a sympathetic American G.I. in the U.S.-occupied zone of Germany, who rescues a young Czech war derelict.

One of the first films about the Holocaust, Fred Zinnemann made in 1948 “The Search,” a moving tale of a young Auschwitz survivor, played by Ivan Jandl, and his mother, who search for each other across post-World War II Europe.  Ivan Jandl won a Special Juvenile Oscar Award “for the outstanding juvenile performance of 1948.

The movie put on themap Fred Zinnemann as a major director to watch and Montgomery Clift as the brightest male star to conquer Hollywood, several years before Marlon Brando made a splashy debut  in “The Men” (1950), directed by no other than Zinnemann.

When the film begins, trains bring homeless children, labeled Displaced Persons (DPs), who are then taken by Mrs. Murray (Aline MacMahon) and other United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) workers to a nearby transit camp, where they are fed and cared for.

The children are interviewed by UNRRA officials, who go out of their way to identify them and reunite them–if possible with their immediate families or relatives.

The tale’s protagonist is a young boy named Karel (Ivan Jandl), who at first responds with “Ich weiß nicht” (“I don’t know”) to all of the questions.  We learn that he grew up in a wealthy Czech family, and that the Nazis had deported his sister and doctor father, while he and his mother were sent to a concentration camp.

Like other families, mother and son are painfully separated. After the war, Karel survived by scavenging for food with other homeless children.

At the camp, the children are split up into groups and loaded into trucks and ambulances that transfer them to other camps. The children in Karel’s group are terrified because the Nazis often used ambulances to gas victims, but they eventually obey. During the trip, the smell of exhaust fumes causes the children to panic. Karel’s friend Raoul manages to open the back door, and the children begin to scatter. Karel and Raoul try to swim across a river to escape from two UNRRA men. Sadly Raoul drowns, but Karel hides in the reeds.

Later, Karel encounters an American army engineer, Steve (Montgomery Clift), who takes care of him. Steve begins teaching the boy English.  He calls Karel Jim because the boy cannot recall his name.

When Jim sees a boy with his mother, he begins to remember his own mother and the last time he saw her, near a fence in the concentration camp. He runs away one evening thinking the fence is nearby. Jim finds a fence at a factory, but cannot find his mother among the workers.

Steve finds Jim and tells him that his mother is dead so that he will stop searching for her. He also promises Jim that he will try to adopt him and take him to America to begin a new life there.

It turns out that Karel’s mother, Mrs. Malik (Jarmila Novotná), is alive, and that she, too, has been searching for her son. By chance—and this is the only contrived element in the narrative–she begins working for Mrs. Murray at the same UNRRA camp where her son had been processed.

Steve takes the boy to the UNRRA camp before leaving for America. He hopes to send for the boy once the paperwork is completed. Mrs. Murray remembers the boy, and suspecting that Jim is Karel, she hurries to the train station to bring Mrs. Malik back, but the train has already left. Then, she sees Mrs. Malik on the train platform; she had changed her mind and decided to stay.

Mrs. Murray takes her back to the UNRRA camp and has her 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!”, and the boy and his mother are reunited.

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

The quasi-documentary style was reinforced 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 as a star, had been a real G.I. without any previous acting experience.


Montgomery Clift as Ralph “Steve” Stevenson

Aline MacMahon as Mrs. Murray

Jarmila Novotná as Mrs. Hanna Malik

Wendell Corey as Jerry Fisher

Ivan Jandl as Karel Malik / “Jim”

Mary Patton as Mrs. Fisher

Ewart G. Morrison as Mr. Crookes

William Rogers as Tom Fisher

Leopold Borkowski as Joel Markowsky

Claude Gambier as Raoul Dubois


The film received good reviews by the major critics, such as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who wrote: No film today is better-acted or more humanly illuminated than “The Search, noting that with this film, Zinnemann had found the first outlet for his creative craftsmanship.

Zinnemann has been working in Hollywood since 1930, but many people assumed that “The Search” was his first film since it was the first time that he got major recognition. Indeed, “The Search” established Zinnemann’s reputation as an A-list Hollywood director.

The Search won Zinnemann the first award of the Screen Directors Guild as the Best director of the year. In 1950, it received the British Film Academy Award as the best film embodying the principles of the United Nations Charter.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Motion Picture Story: Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler
Actor: Montgomery Clift

Oscar Awards: 2

Motion Picture Story
Special Award: Ivan Jandl, outstanding juvenile performance

Oscar Context

In 1948, Oscar voters split between Best Picture (Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet”) and Best Director (John Huston for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”).