For director/writer Christian Bauer, making The Ritchie Boys has been a personal odyssey spanning more than fifteen years. As a post-war German, he became engrossed in reading about those who felt compelled to leave Germany in the 1930s. Camp Ritchie, Maryland was cited in one of those volumes. Further research into the Military Intelligence Training Camp convinced him that telling the stories of the “Boys,“ who trained there (many of those were European refugees: artists, academics and philosophers) in order to use their language, cultural and geographic knowledge to ferret out information from POWs (D-Day to the end of the war), might be of benefit not only to his generation, but to the world at large.
Following a special screening at the 2005 Palm Springs International Film Festival, where one of the several hundred in attendance identified himself as a Ritchie Boy, JWR had the opportunity of discussing the film with Bauer.
You came up with the concept in the late ’80s. Why did it take until 2004 to reach the screen?
I couldn't get the financing in 1990, so I had to put that project on hold. But it was a mixed blessing because in the interim I made some other films [e.g. Missing Allen - The Man Who Became a Camera, 2001], which improved my filmmaking capabilities. Three years ago I decided to try again. The German funding was already in place when I pitched the project to Canadian producers in Toronto at Hot Docs 2003. Not only did the Canadians come on board, but The Ritchie Boys was selected as the opening film for Hot Docs 2004.
The film resonates on many levels and goes far beyond "documenting" a particular aspect of the push to defeat the Nazis. What is your personal stake in the film?
I felt great shame as a young student. As a girl, my mother had attended a Jewish school and made many friends there. I grew up with her grief and it became part of my life. The German/Jewish culture was so intertwined—it belonged together. But that was over in 1933. The film is my attempt of trying to reconcile myself and my generation with those who suffered. Incredibly, Guy Stern [one of the “Boys”] recalled the coincidence of interrogating someone from his old neighbourhood. As we discussed the details it developed that not only was that the same town as my mother's but, when learning her maiden name, Stern admitted to having had a crush on her. So I called my mother and related the whole story—she was so happy to learn that at least one of her classmates had survived. Hearing the joy of that discovery in her voice added immeasurably to my impetus for making the film.
Of the estimated 20,000 attendees at Camp Ritchie classes, how did you settle on the ten “Boys” who appear?
It wasn’t easy. After the war, the “Boys” went on with their lives; only a few stayed in touch with each other. They were not career soldiers. As intellectuals, the war was something to forget. Most of their records were housed in the U.S. National Archive in St. Louis. In 1973 they were destroyed in a fire. So we spread the word and I began the process of contacting them individually. At first, many were unwilling. They must have wondered why a German wanted to make a film about their efforts to topple Hitler. Some felt they’d be talking with the enemy. But after a while they had a better idea of where I was coming from. They felt I understood and realized that they wanted to tell their stories. We all knew that these are their last years [many of the “Boys” are in their eighties]—there are not going to be too many more of them. Finally, in 2003, we started interviewing the twenty “Boys” on camera. Six months of editing followed where I had the painful process of eliminating so many good stories.
As the film took shape, and now that you've seen it at so many festivals, what has surprised you?
When they arrived as refugees, many were socialists, communists or “premature anti-fascists.” What impressed me is that they all had done so well [professors, artists, business men, and in good health] and made a contribution beyond fighting for America. I was surprised that I could make the film and glad that it is much more than a WW II story. Most people just expected a TV documentary, not the scope of emotions it contains. Recently, at a screening in New York City, I hadn’t intended to stay, but I did. And I realized that even after fifteen years and knowing every frame, I’m still not getting bored seeing it. I’m proud of the film. JWR