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The Variety review erroneously credits Edward G. Robinson with the role of "Mr. Crookes" and lists Leopold Borowski's surname as Markowski. Much of the story of The Search was based on actual events that took place in Europe after World War II, and is narrated in a documentary-like style. The screen credits contain the following written acknowledgment: "Portions of the film were produced in the United States occupied zone of Germany through the kind permission of the United States Army and the cooperation of I.R.O." The film was the first picture to be made in Europe after the end of World War II with an American director and American stars. It was also the second motion picture produced in Switzerland by Praesens Films and distributed by M-G-M.
According to a New York Times article, the film was inspired, in part, by Therese Bonney's book Europe's Children, a photographic study of Europe's war orphans. Another New York Times article noted that M-G-M provided fifty percent of the film's $250,000 budget and agreed to loan out director Fred Zinnemann for the production. An April 1948 Washington, D.C. Times-Herald article notes that Zinnemman interviewed hundreds of children in displacement camps and used their stories to form the basis of the film. According to various contemporary sources, M-G-M released Zinnemann as part of its "economy drive" to pare down its payroll.
The film marked Montgomery Clift's motion picture debut. Although Clift completed his work on the film Red River before he began work on The Search, Red River had its premiere five months after The Search. Clift was a former stage actor who starred in his first Broadway play at the age of thirteen. According to studio publicity materials, the nine-year-old Czechoslovakian boy Ivan Jandl was discovered by Zinnemann at a Prague radio studio, where Jandl and other children were performing a musical recital. Jandl spoke no English at the time of production and had no professional training as an actor. Czech-born assistant director Mila Mellanova translated Zinnemann's directions into Czech for Jandl, who learned his English lines by rote. The Search is the only American film in which Jandl appeared, though he had a minor, non-speaking part in a Czechoslovakian film called Varuj. Metropolitan Opera star Jarmila Novotna, who appeared in several European stage and film productions, made her American motion picture debut in The Search.
Studio publicity materials add the following information about the film: The production required several years of research and planning, as well as five location trips to Germany. Actress Aline MacMahon prepared for her role by spending three days at a relocation camp for displaced children. Clift prepared for his role by living among soldiers at an army engineers unit near Zurich. The children in the displacement camp sequences were played by actual war victims who were under the care of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), and who were personally selected for parts in the film by Zinnemann and Wechsler. Actual members of British and American field organizations also appeared in the film.
According to a contemporary news article, Zinnemann acknowledged that war orphans used in the film as extras were terrified of the re-enactments in which they participated. Zinnemann is quoted as having said, "I explained it was make-believe, just for a movie. But when I asked them to stand before the camera and hold numbered cards, for a screen test, they shook with fear. The numbers reminded them of concentration camps." Zinnemann added, however, that the children "understood the movie would help the cause of displaced persons, so they didn't mind." In his autobiography, Zinnemann stated that he wanted to show America what had happened in Europe during the war, and that to do so, he was obliged to moderate the truth, noting that, "otherwise, people would have been unable to bear it."
The film's exteriors were filmed on location in the American zone of Germany, principally in and around Nuremberg, as well as Munich, Wrzburg and Frankfurt. Interior scenes were filmed in Zurich, Switzerland. The Search was well-received by critics, some of whom underscored the fact that it was made on a modest budget. The New York Times reviewer said of the film: "Our earnest wish is that it might be seen by every adult in the United States." The Variety reviewer, though critical of the "saccharine finale," generally praised the film, noting that "films like The Search can be a decisive factor in causing the world to take a deep breath and give another thought to the fearful eyes of those children before it plunges itself off the present brink and into another international catastrophe."
Jandl won a special Academy Award for "outstanding juvenile performance." Clift was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor but lost to Laurence Olivier. Writers Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler, the son of the producer, won an Academy Award for their story, and were nominated for an Academy Award for their screenplay. Zinnemann was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Direction, and received an award from the Screen Directors Guild. Following his work on The Search, Zinnemann returned to Hollywood and signed a three-year contract with RKO. Soon after he signed with RKO, Zinnemann was sought by M-G-M to direct Act of Violence.
A biography of Clift notes the following: Novelist and screenplay writer Peter Viertel was involved in the development of an early draft of the script but quit in protest when all references to Adolf Hitler's "final solution" were removed from the screenplay. Viertel, and Clift, too, felt that the film was flawed for having glossed over the harshest Nazi atrocities in favor of a more palatable story. Clift re-wrote and improvised many of his lines, disregarding the repeated warnings of the producers not to tamper with the script. The battle over Clift's lines developed into a bitter feud between Lazar Wechsler and Clift, eventually requiring the intervention of lawyers. Tensions on the set were heightened further when Clift, refused to sign another contract with M-G-M unless Wechsler agreed to let him rewrite a pivotal scene in which his character tells the Czechoslovakian boy that his mother has died. In the end, Clift prevailed and the scene was rewritten. Clift is quoted in his biography as having once said of the script, "it's like The Yearling with sugar added."