The Oscar for the film "The Search" is on display today in the exhibition "Simply Zurich" at the National Museum Zurich.
The Oscar for the film "The Search" is on display today in the exhibition "Simply Zurich" at the National Museum Zurich. Mara Truog, 2023

The misfortunate Oscar

An Academy Award: sign of triumph, success and recognition? Not always. In the case of "The Search" by Zurich-based Praesens-Film, the award was more a symbol of frustration and pain. It even ruined half the life of one of its recipients.

Michèle Wannaz

Michèle Wannaz

Michèle Wannaz is co-curator of the exhibition "Simply Zurich" at National Museum Zurich.

Hollywood, Academy Award ceremony 1949: Ava Gardner, Robert Montgomery, Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr and dozens of others who are still considered the epitome of the classic Hollywood star. Applause. Champagne. Orchestras, dinner jackets and sequined gowns. And the Oscar goes to ... Zurich! What a joy, actually. Theoretically. Well: maybe a little practical too. But really only to a limited extent. Because this Oscar was a symbol of recognition on the outside, but emotionally bitterly charged for the two winners Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler, the screenwriters of "The Search". The film was a co-production of the Zurich-based company Praesens-Film with Hollywood's MGM.
Trailer of the 1948 film "The Search". YouTube
However, the triumph had a stale aftertaste not only for them, but for everyone involved - including David's father, producer Lazar Wechsler. It is true that Swiss film owes its greatest cinema successes to him: millions queued up for "Landammann Stauffacher" or "Gilberte de Courgenay" during the Second World War, and almost a third of the Swiss population for his "Füsilier Wipf". The drama "Marie-Louise" also brought Praesens film its first (screenplay) Oscar. And the refugee epic "The Last Chance" finally paved the company's way to Hollywood for good.
Anne-Marie Blanc during the shooting of the film "Gilberte de Courgenay", 1941.
Anne-Marie Blanc during the shooting of the film "Gilberte de Courgenay", 1941. Swiss National Museum / ASL
There's no doubt about it: Wechsler had a terrific feel for the zeitgeist, for topics and stories that moved the masses. He was able to inspire his team and drove them to peak performance. Nevertheless, he was anything but popular and was considered difficult, moody and authoritarian. During the filming of "The Search" his unpopularity intermittently reached its peak. This for at least partly the same reason that then also clouded the joy of the Oscar. At the award ceremony practically everyone blamed each other: the director the producer, the producer the leading actor, the leading actor the screenwriters - and somehow everyone. Or at least almost.
Lazar Wechsler in a picture from 1935.
Lazar Wechsler in a picture from 1935. UCLA Library Digital Collections
But let's take it one step at a time. Shortly after the end of the war, MGM, the largest film production company in the world at the time, offered Wechsler a co-production. Wechsler asked around among his employees. And realised that several of them would like to see a humanistically committed post-war film. In particular, star director Leopold Lindtberg, a Jewish refugee from Austria, repeatedly heard dramatic descriptions of those close to him who escaped the Holocaust and wanted to do everything he could to alleviate the suffering. This meant directing public awareness even more strongly to the most helpless victims of the war: the children. In the spring of 1946, based on a true incident, Lindtberg developed the story of a grandmother who crosses devastated Europe in search of her grandchildren. Their parents, who were in the circle of Claus von Stauffenberg, had been shot after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, the children abducted, given a new identity and housed in widely scattered places.
Leopold Lindtberg (seated) during the filming of "Füsilier Wipf", around 1938.
Leopold Lindtberg (seated) during the filming of "Füsilier Wipf", around 1938. Cinémathèque suisse
Wechsler secretly added the material to his list of stories he wanted to present to MGM, travelled to California - and Hollywood was hooked. Behind Lindtberg's back, however, he entrusted the story to a Hollywood writer, Peter Viertel, also from Austria. The brief: Make the grandmother into a mother and delete all references to the assassination. And although Lindtberg directed the biggest Praesens successes – such as "Füsilier Wipf", "Marie-Louise" or "The last chance" - Wechsler hired Fred Zinnemann (later known for his world success "High Noon") as director. After the release of "The Search", Zinnemann wrote to Lindtberg about the unease he felt about the success of the film, since the idea actually came from the latter and that he "should have made the film!" Nonetheless, he gladly accepted when Wechsler made the offer. The story of an American soldier in the occupation zone who takes care of a disturbed orphan boy touched him. And he also liked the fact that the whole thing was to be filmed in a semi-documentary style – in the real ruins of the war and partly with lay people, above all children who experienced the crimes of the Nazis first-hand, some of whom were even in a concentration camp.
Director Fred Zinnemann, taken in the 1940s.
Director Fred Zinnemann, taken in the 1940s. Wikimedia
During the casting for the lead role Zinnemann was really enraptured by a young actor: Montgomery Clift. Together with Marlon Brando, Clift would later be considered the best actor of his generation, but at that time he was still completely unknown. Clift signed his contract with Zurich on the basis of Viertel's script. But Wechsler still found it too political, which endangered commercial success. He handed it over to Richard Schweizer, whose son David then edited it again. Exact details of place and time disappeared to a large extent. The orphan's Jewish parents became Czech intellectuals, the Wehrmacht and SS became an anonymous "secret police". Moreover, the children were no longer Nazi victims, but undefined "orphans of war". Viertel, whose family were themselves victims of National Socialism, was so outraged that he withdrew his name. And Clift could hardly calm down either. When he read the final version of the script - already contractually obligated, to his chagrin - he called it a terrible Sacharin concentrate and wrote in horror: "Like 'The Wilderness Calls', only sweeter!"
Montgomery Clift was one of the best and most famous cinema actors of the 1950s.
Montgomery Clift was one of the best and most famous cinema actors of the 1950s. Library of Congress
When the actor arrived in Zurich, where the interior shots were to be filmed, he was determined to correct the pompous script. Also because its authors, he noted with irritation, have no idea whatsoever about the American army and mentality. At first, Lazar Wechsler had no idea what an ambitious young man he had brought onto the set. But Clift gave it his all: at night he rewrote his dialogue, invented entire scenes and continued to improvise on the set – much to Zinneman's secret relief: the GI Steve suddenly became a figure of flesh and blood, his relationship with the orphan boy complex, interspersed with irritation and feelings of guilt. Wechsler could not believe how little his leading actor stuck to the script and how poorly he could be understood because he continuously chewed gum while acting - authentically, "like a real soldier". He bombarded him with registered letters (up to three a day), which were brought to Clift on the set, whereupon the latter confided to a friend: "This Wechsler is unbelievable. He's forcing everyone to waste their time writing letters or arguing with their lawyers." The conflict was so gruelling for the crew that in the meantime - the unsuitable weather for filming did the rest - they even considered cancelling the whole thing.

Oscar and Criticism for the Screenplay

Fortunately, this did not happen. Because to this day, "The Search" is considered a milestone of authentic post-war cinema and would remain the Swiss film with the most international awards for decades. Criticism of the screenplay, however, has persisted to this day - despite winning an Oscar. It is "bristled with sentimentality and coincidences far removed from any credibility", and "none of the children seemed to have suffered any irreversible trauma". On the other hand, film historian Hervé Dumont, praised the work of the director and cinematographer: "In the looks of these orphans - some were really rescued from Auschwitz – there are traces of trauma that no screenplay can erase". So it is hard to assume that Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler only felt good when they accepted this Oscar. They, of all people, were accused by a part of the creative core of the team that the film would have been much better without their help. But while the internal wrangling probably only dampened their joy, the award ceremony meant downright misfortune for Ivan Jandl, who played the orphan boy and also received the honorary Oscar for best child actor at the same ceremony. In fact, it even screwed up his life. At least his professional life. The fear of the politically incorrect connotation was also decisive here - albeit under completely different circumstances than in the reworking of the script by Lazar Wechsler.
Ivan Jandl (left) was not lucky with the film or the Oscar. Scene from "The Search" with Montgomery Clift.
Ivan Jandl (left) did not have any luck with the film or the Oscar. Scene from "The Search" with Montgomery Clift. Keystone
Jandl, who was only twelve years old in 1949, came from Czechoslovakia. And the communist regime of his home country forbade him to take part in the award ceremony. The Oscar had to be sent home to him. After that, he was only allowed to appear in three films in small roles. And when he wanted to study acting in Prague after finishing compulsory school, the theatre faculty turned him down on the grounds that he would not have been allowed to accept an American award. So from then on he kept his head above water with odd jobs - culminating in a position as a radio presenter, which was, however, also terminated after a short time without any reasons being given. Ivan Jandl died in 1987 at the age of 50, without ever having received any real recognition in his home country.

Close-up. Making Swiss film history

12.01.2024 21.04.2024 / National Museum Zurich
Praesens-Film AG celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2024. Switzerland’s oldest surviving film company has an eventful past that has taken it all the way to Hollywood. The exhibition shines a spotlight on the people who wrote Swiss film history in front of and behind the camera and shows the extent to which the silver screen has always reflected the zeitgeist.

Simply Zurich

The City and Canton of Zurich have a long and chequered history. This will be showcased in this permanent exhibition at the National Museum. From the model of a pile dwelling hut to the muesli grater and the flag of a youth movement, the show puts Zurich's rich past in the spotlight and brings an added dimension to the numerous historical objects with cinematic installations and state-of-the-art technology giving visitors a multimedia experience.

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