In 1948, Hollywood director Fred Zinnemann travelled to postwar Germany to film “The Search,” a melodrama about a Czech mother and son who survive Auschwitz and look for each other amid the ruins of the Third Reich. The film is best remembered today for Montgomery Clift’s nuanced portrayal of a GI who looks after the war orphan, a role that earned the actor an Oscar nomination. More than 60 years later, Michel Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of “The Artist,” has updated the classic melodrama, setting it in the context of the Second Chechen War in the late 1990s. Hazanavicius’s “The Search,” starring Bérénice Bejo (also of “The Artist” and the director’s wife) and Annette Bening, recently premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where its visceral realism and searing brutality set it apart from other art house fare that reveled in escapism, lyrical beauty or the intellectual highbrow.
Hazanavicius has said that he wanted to make a film about Chechnya for a long time. “People tend to forget these topical issues,” said the director, adding that his own background as an Ashkenazi Jew whose family survived the Holocaust (his Lithuanian-born grandparents are survivors) made him respond strongly to this much more recent humanitarian catastrophe. In both the 1940s and the 1990s, “people were being massacred yet the international community was indifferent,” he said.
Yet another failure of the international community to respond to a human rights crisis lurks in the background of his film. In 2004, Hazanavicius produced and co-wrote “Rwanda: History of a Genocide,” a documentary co-directed by Raphaël Glucksmann, the son of the philosopher André Glucksmann. “[André] was one of the rare French intellectuals who alerted public opinion to what was happening in Chechnya at the time it occurred. It became quite a personal matter for me,” he said.
Hazanavicius was looking for a narrative approach to the subject matter when his friend and fellow director Nicolas Saada gave him Zinnemann’s “The Search” to watch. “Suddenly I linked that film to my desire to make a film on Chechnya,” Hazanavicius said. “Zinnemann talked about these kids who escaped the concentration camps. At the time, concentration camps were not the key issue discussed during World War II. And through this melodrama, a very humanistic approach very close to the characters, Zinnemann succeeded in talking about the war. And I thought it was an approach that worked well.”