The Search (United States, 1948)

Figure 1.--.

While his mother is searching for him, a starving Czech war orphan accepts help from a GI. The Search depicts post World War II clothes (although sometimes they're in tattered condition). It's filmed in various locations in Germany and shows abundantly the devastation of the war. The GI dresses him up a bit, but still short pants. It's one of Montgomery Clift's earliest films. The story line is a mother's search for her son among the displaced persons camps. They'd been separated while they were in a concentration camp, and the film is really two parallel stories, mother's and son's, which finally intersect at the very end of the film. Despite a script, which is at times stilted and awkward, the performances and the story are quite effective and memorable.


"THe Search" is one of Montgomery Clift's earliest films. I believe Aline Mac Mahon was nominated that year for an Oscar for her supporting role in the film, but she didn't win the award. She brought lots of heart into a script that was still awkward despite rewrites made at Montgomery Clift's insistence. Miss Mac Mahon seemed in this film like the elementary school teacher we all wish we'd had! The basic outline of the script was sketched out by Swiss writer Richard Schweizer. The original title was "The European Children". Wechsler based it on an article about displaced children in Europe.

Main Characters

Mongomery Clift played GI Ralph Stevenson who in occupied post-War Germany comes accross a run away boy displaced by the War. The film was Clift's first critically acclaimed Hollywood production. The mother and boy who are main characters in "The Search" were political prisoners in a concentration camp. The mother was played by Jarmila Novotna, a famous Czech soprano at the time. The boy was played by Ivan Jandl. Ivan did not speek English but commited his ines to memory. He gave a very moving performance. Here he was helped by Clift who brought him little presents and would go on walks with him. [Capua, p. 48.] Aline Mac Mahon's performance as the UNRAA camp director merited a nomination for best supproting role for an actress. This was the first film of hers I'd seen, and it was surprising to see her earliest roles as a wise-cracking show girl in "Golddiggers of 1933" and her comedy roles with Guy Kibbee in 1930's films.

The Children

The identity of the children is not clear. In one scene the boy, Karel, sits with a group of children who are being processed by UNRRA members. We learn a bit about the children's background during their interviews. Some of the children survived concentration camps; others lived among the partisans. None are identified as Jewish during the interviews. We do see, tattooed on one of Karel's arms, his concentration camp number. Most of the children in concentration camps would have been Jewish. Actually mosdt Jewish children were murdered upon arrival. Those that were not were very lucky. I think it was primarily Jews who had numbers tatooed on. Karel is very self-consciuos of it, and when one child stares it, Karel pulled the sleeve of his shirt down to cover it.


While his mother is searching for him, a starving Czech war orphan accepts help from a GI. The story line is a mother's search for her son among the displaced persons camps. They'd been separated while they were in a concentration camp, and the film is really two parallel stories, mother's and son's, which finally intersect at the very end of the film. Aline Mac Mahon plays an UNRAA official in charge of the orphanage for the displaced children. Early in the film, she's compiling each child's records with the assistance of an interpreter. One girl stands before their desk telling what happened to her. The interpreter translate as Aline Mac Mahon wrote. The girl had been assigned to collect the clothes from those put to death in the gas chamber. She found her own mother's clothes in the pile; that's how she learned of her execution. Miss Mac Mahon looked straight up at the girl, shocked, uncomprhending how people could do such that to another human. After a moment, she turns her eyes, now closed away from the girl, and tells the interpreter, "Say something to her. Anything". The language is Hungarian, and we can but guess what the man could possibly have said. The film is both indescribably sad and beautiful at once. That scene was probably the most vivid of the accounts provided by the children in that segment of "The Search". All had lost parents in either the death camps or in skirmishes with the Nazis.

The Ambulance Scene

Following their interviews, the children are to go by trucks, ijncluding some abulances, to a larger DP transit camp. The trucks seem to bring back memories of being rounded up and sent by train to concentration camps. When the truck in which Karel and his best friend were riding backfires, the children smell gas and fear the worst. One child breaks the back windshield with a hammer, opens the door, and all the children run out. The drivers bring back all the children, except Karel and his friend. They made their way their way to a river. Karel's friend drownded, and Karel, unfound, was presumed to have died, also.


One surprizing aspect of the film is that Hitler and the NAZIs are nowhere mentioned. This was a decesion taken that the full picture of what the NAZIs did was to horendous for an American audience. It was not believed that an American audience could stomache it. Thus a softer script was decided upon. [Capua, p. 47.]


The Search depicts post Second World War clothes (although sometimes they're in tattered condition). The GI dresses him up a bit, but he still short pants.


"The Search" is filmed in various locations in Switzerland with a few shots in Germany. The German scenes are the ones shot in the rubble of bombed-out Germany. They abundantly the devastation of the war.


Despite a script, which is at times stilted and awkward, the performances and the story are quite effective and memorable. One reader writes, "The definitive film for a graphic record of World War II's destruction and its effects on the young is "The Search". This film remains one of the perrenial favorites of TCM viewers. It's a unique film and a great testament to its time. I could watch it a million times and never grow bored of the performances of the players, particularly Aline Mac Mahon, Jarmila Novotna, Montgomery Clift, and of course the object of the search, Ivan Jandl.

The Holocaust

The film is actually a bit confused in one area. The film seems to be more about DPs in general than Jewish children. The children in the film do not look Jewish nor do I think they are identified as beingb Jewish. Yet in one key scenre at the beginning the children are afraid of getting into an ambulance because they ythink they will be killed--an allusion I think to the Holocaust. Many now Jewish children died as a result of deprivation, but I do not know of any non-Jewish children being taken away and shot or gassed by the Germans, other than gypsey children. Had the NAZIs won the War, this may have occurred with the Slavs in Eastern Rurope, but as far as I know it did not occur during the War.

Jewish Children in the Film

When Karel's mother, Mrs, Malik, arrives at the camp, there seems to be good news; a man knows just where her son is and takes her to him. The boy appears in a choir robe, and the mother knows this isn't her son. The boy assumed that name at a concentration camp in order to hide the fact that he is Jewish. His real name is Joel. New to the camp, the other boys dislike him. One day, Mrs. Malik saw a group of boys gang up against Joel. Joel ran to her, and she told the boys, "Go ahead and hit him. It should be easy. They're five of you and just one of him." Ashamed, they shook hands with Joel, now accepted by the boys. There is a group of young Jewish DPs in the film. They are seen on their last day at the camp before their departure for Palestine. The children march out, singing together. Mrs. Malik and Joel share one last smile in a very nicely done scene as he leaves.

United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA)

The camps portrayed toi care for chilkdren after the War were set up by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). As the United Nations didn't relly exist a=t thectime. The camps were largely set up and finanbced by the United States. The needs of the World War II Displaced Persons were anticipated by the United States. American authorities were not fully aware of the enormity of the NAZI crimes in the occupied countries, but it was clear that there were large numbers of displaced persons. The United States thus helped established and fund the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration--UNRRA (1943). The purpose of the new agency was to provide services for the postwar refugees and to help repatriate them to their own countries. UNRRA was not created specifically to assist Jewish refugees, but refugees in general. Because of NAZI race policies, however, Jews were the group most affected by the War and in need of assistance. While established in 1943, UNRRA could not begin its principal work until NAZI occupied Europe was liberated. UNRRA opened camps in North Africa and began prepsrations for its work when after D-Day and Soviets offences in the East, the NAZI empire was rapidly dimantalled. UNRRA was in place when Germany surrendered (May 1945).

Historical Accuracy

It is interesting to view these early films dealing with the issue of displaced childern during World War II. The films made before or during the War present the issue, but usully do not even begin todel with the montrous dimensions of NAZI genocidal policies. Even after the War, although generally more realistic, films often do not fully portray the extent to which chidren were targetted by the NAZIs. One NAZI program often ignored in these films is the Lebensborn program in the occupied countries. A little blond boy as depicted in The Search might well have been caught up in the program. Readers may also want to review the HBC post-War Displaced Personss page. I'm unsure about the accuracy of this depiction. The film introduces their family as "intellectuals" who were persecuted by the NAZIs. The NAZIs did indeed target intelectuals in certasin countries (especiall Czechoslovakia and Poland) where their goal was to destroy Czech and Polish national identyity. Here to my knowledge those arrested and murdered or confined in concentration camps were mostly the fathers who had professional occupations and not the wives and children. The NAZis arrested whole Jewish families, but I don't think this was the case for the intelectuals. Also the NAZIS seized Czechoslovakia in 1939. The chaces of the boy's mother, let alone the boy, surviving 6 years in a concentration camp would be slim. The film, does, however, illustrate a very impotant point. Many people seem to believe that the NAZIs primarily killed Jews. There were in fact many others the NAZIs targeted. In fact the first NAZI targets were the Communists. The first killing campaign targeted the handicapped--the T-4 Program. The NAZIs also targeted the Slavs (the Czechs were Slavs). Had the NAZIs won the War, their plans for the Slavs were horific. And involved a much larger population than European Jews.


Capua, Michelangelo. Montgomery Clift: A Biography (McFarland: Jefferson, North Carolina, 2002), 184p.


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Created: May 14, 2001
Last updated: 7:23 PM 3/16/2012