"The Ritchie Boys" begins, like many another World War II documentary, with scenes of German soldiers marching and Hitler saluting. But don't be misled. This is a film with a story we have not seen before, a story about American troops so unusual it needed a German director to ferret it out.
It took Christian Bauer, a top German documentary maker, about 15 years to both gather the information and raise the funding for this intriguing film, one of the dozen short-listed for the 2005 feature-length documentary Oscar.
The Ritchie boys are named after Camp Ritchie, located in Maryland's bucolic Blue Ridge Mountains and once the site of the Army's Military Intelligence Training Center. This was the World War II home to what one graduate fondly recalls as the strangest collection of soldiers, "people without military instincts" who were nevertheless crucial to winning the conflict.
What united almost all the Ritchie boys was that they were Jewish refugees from Germany, the country America was now at war with, people who came to the United States in the 1930s and now seethed with rage and a desire for revenge because of what the land of their birth was doing both to Europe and to the Jews.
Because the Ritchie boys knew the language and the psychology of the enemy better than any native-born soldier could, the government realized they were ideal for intelligence work and psychological warfare. At Camp Ritchie, their tasks included learning how to read aerial photographs and memorizing the German order of battle.
Difficult as it was due to a fire that destroyed many of the camp's records, Bauer tracked down a handful of Ritchie graduates, who turn out to be an engaging, highly intelligent octogenarian bunch who are aware they have great stories to tell and are not averse to telling them.
Once in Europe following D-day, the Ritchie boys followed a variety of paths. They worked on leaflets encouraging German soldiers to surrender, they broadcast similar sentiments near the front lines and, mostly, like Guy Stern and Fred Howard, friends to this day, they formed interrogation teams to get information from captured soldiers.
Some of the Ritchie boys' memories are playful, like sneaking into Paris to witness the liberation or escorting Marlene Dietrich on a visit to captured German officers. But much of what they remember is painful and haunts them to this day.
Former soldiers recount what it was like visiting their old hometowns and talk about the trauma of the German counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge, when speaking English with a German accent was enough to get at least one Ritchie boy shot dead by a nervous sentry.
Ritchie boy Si Lewen, who became an artist after the war, has memories of the conflict he cannot shake. "No picture, no movie can re-create war," he says in one of the film's most moving moments. "There is a smell, a stink to war. When bodies explode . . . there's a terrible stink. If people would just smell it they would become pacifists."
"The Ritchie Boys." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A. (213) 617-0268.