One oft-cited feature of this film is that many of the scenes were shot amidst the actual ruins of post-war German cities, namely Ingolstadt, Nuremberg, and Würzburg.
During the Allied occupation of Germany, efforts are underway to rebuild the shattered country and reunite divided families. Trains transport homeless children (Displaced Persons or DPs), who are taken by Mrs. Murray (Aline MacMahon) and other United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) workers to a transit camp, where they are fed and protected. The next morning, UNRRA officials attempt identification of the children to help reunite them with their families.
A young boy named Karel (Ivan Jandl) responds "Ich weiß nicht" ("I don't know") to all questions. He grew up in a well-to-do Czech family. The Nazis had deported his sister and doctor father, while the boy and mother were sent to a concentration camp. Karel bears a tattoo numbering A24328, and it is revealed the A prefix stands for Auschwitz. They eventually became separated. After the war, Karel survived by scavenging for food with other homeless children.
The next day, children are loaded into trucks and ambulances for transfer to other camps. The children in Karel's group are at first terrified because the Nazis often used ambulances to asphyxiate victims, but eventually enter the vehicle. During the trip, the smell of exhaust fumes panics the children. Karel's friend Raoul forces open the back door and children scatter in all directions. Karel and Raoul try to swim across a river to escape from UNRRA men. Raoul drowns, but Karel hides in the reeds.
Later, Karel encounters an American army engineer, Steve (Montgomery Clift), who cares for him. Steve starts teaching the boy English. Because Karel cannot recall his name, Steve calls him Jim.
When Jim sees a boy with his mother, he starts remembering his own mother and when he last 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 going home. Steve eventually finds Jim and tells him that his mother is dead (Steve has reason to believe she had been gassed) so he will stop searching for her. He also informs Jim that he is going to try to adopt him and take him to America to start a new life there.
As it turns out, Karel's mother, Mrs. Malik (Jarmila Novotná), is alive. In a parallel story, she has been searching for her son. By chance, she begins working for Mrs. Murray at the same UNRRA camp where her son had been processed. After a while though, she resigns to resume her nearly-hopeless search for Karel.
That same day, 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. 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, in an emotional climax.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
Special Juvenile Academy Award "for the outstanding juvenile performance of 1948 in The Search" - Ivan Jandl
Best Story - Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler
Best Actor in a Leading Role - Montgomery Clift
Best Director - Fred Zinnemann
Best Writing, Screenplay - Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler
BAFTA UN Award
Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay - Richard Schweizer
Golden Globe Special Award for Best Juvenile Actor - Ivan Jandl
Golden Globe Award for Best Film Promoting International Understanding
Directors Guild of America Award - Fred Zinnemann
Venice Film Festival Golden Lion - Fred Zinnemann
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times praised it highly, calling it, "an absorbing and gratifying emotional drama of the highest sort". Crowther thought that Clift got "precisely the right combination of intensity and casualness into the role". Clint Eastwood singled out Clift's performance as the one that had the greatest influence on his own acting career.
Anne Helen Petersen, writing for The Hairpin in 2012, commented that the film is "mostly forgotten today".
Theatre Guild on the Air presented The Search March 9, 1952. The one-hour adaptation starred Montgomery Clift and Fay Bainter.