The king who never was, a three-episode documentary series on Netflix, focuses on a tragic event in August 1978 that shocked Europe and remains a mystery to this day. This happened while Prince Victor Emmanuel of Savoy, the last heir to the Italian throne, was on vacation at his summer residence on the island of Cavallo, France, on the southern coast of Corsica, just a short distance from Italy. In his anger at a group of “intrusive” Italian partygoers spending the night on their boats off the coast of Cavallo, Victor Emmanuel pulled out a rifle and shot dead a young German tourist, Dirk Hammer, sleeping on the deck of one of the boats.
The documentaries, directed by Beatrice Borromeo Casiraghi, who is married to Pierre Casiraghi, the last of Caroline of Monaco’s three children, recreate what happened on that hot August night through interviews with eyewitnesses who recount how the exiled prince became very angry because a group of “noisy boys” borrowed the boat from his yacht to moor on land. The prince does not deny firing his rifle, but claims the second gun shot 19-year-old Dirk Hammer, who eventually died of his wounds months later.
Victor Emmanuel was acquitted of the murder charges in November 1991 by the Paris Criminal Court and sentenced to just six months in prison for illegally carrying a firearm used outside his home. His defense attorney argued that it could not be proven beyond doubt that it was Victor Emanuel’s rifle that fired the fatal shot. It was a long legal battle fought tirelessly by Dirk’s sister, Birgit Hamer, who was also in the boat with him that tragic night and was devastated by the verdict.
Casiraghi’s next ambitious project is yet to be made The crown about her new family: the Grimaldi of the Principality of Monaco, Europe’s longest-serving royal family. “My company Astrea Films produced the film about the capture of the fortress of Monaco by the Grimaldi family in the Middle Ages,” reveals Borromeo.
THR Roma talks to Casiraghi about why she chose to revisit the events of 1978 The king who never wasBirgit Hamer’s long-standing efforts to uncover the truth and her personal connection to history.
Back to the present, how long did it take to make The king who never was?
About two and a half years. I told myself that my story was also an old story that needed to be corrected. A story that still has a great impact on the present. The fact that Birgit’s daughters are still trapped in it. These are waves from distant history that continue to flood us today. I was wondering why? The answer, I think, is that when the truth doesn’t come out, the damage continues. Until things get better.
You said that you now hope to have closed a painful chapter in your life. Why?
This story was part of my childhood because my mother Paola Marzotto was one of Birgit’s closest friends. It has been a part of my family for as long as I can remember. It was an affair that was talked about at home, even with a certain sense of helplessness about the facts, about what happened, about the impunity that hung around Vittorio Emanuele. I think that was one of the stories that made me choose to become a journalist.
Did you discover anything while filming the series that you didn’t know?
So much things. There was a lot of confusion surrounding this story. Putting the pieces together was a new thing even in my house. Birgit herself understood many things that she did not know. I believe that creating confusion and delay is the defense strategy of the Prince’s lawyers. The whole phantom shooter theory, the reconstruction of the boats, the ballistics tests that showed it couldn’t be 100 percent certain that the bullet came from the prince’s rifle. They never proved it wasn’t him, which his lawyer’s son, who is now dead, repeated to me when he sent me the defense.
Defense presented by Marina Doria (Victor Emmanuel’s wife)?
She is the great hero, even though the documentary is about Vittorio Emanuele. The series has two great main characters: Birgit Hamer and Marina Doria. Women who used the same tenacity and determination to achieve two opposing goals. They are the driving forces behind everything that has happened, for better or for worse…
Why has Marina Doria never appeared on camera?
I was only able to interview her on audio because she was aware of her age and did not want her face photographed. We got close a few times but I couldn’t convince her. In the end, however, she decided to participate.
Did her son Emanuele Filiberto help her?
He was instrumental. He helped me so much to get closer to his parents, to create the context in which it is possible to talk, listen and tell each other everything. With his mother, since she wasn’t well, he was the one, technically, interviewing her with my questions. He also helped retrieve private material: home movies of family friends who had spent the summer riding horses, shot at the time on Super 8. She was very cooperative. I am convinced that he did this so that by dealing with this matter alone, the “case” could be closed and solved. And maybe he won’t go back to his daughters, who won’t have to suffer through everything that happened to him in the last 50 years.
What was his reaction when he saw the finished product?
I sent him the series two days before it aired, insisting on Netflix. It was important to me that he had time to draw his conclusions before the media hype. I was trying to work hard, not to be biased, I wanted to hear his opinion. He told me that there were obviously a lot of parts he didn’t like, but that he found it a balanced documentary.
Are you still on good terms?
When he saw the documentary, he wrote me, “We’re still friends…” With lots of ellipses.
Did the eyewitnesses of the sad story do everything possible to help Birgit?
Now they did. They really made themselves available. They provided the memories, the materials they had and expressed their truth. Although it was the first time in over 40 years.
If one of the “peers” had been killed and not Dirk Hammer, would things have turned out differently?
I think that in any context where the state is absent and there is a serious failure of the system, the difference is made by the means and abilities of the people to continue their own fight for justice. Obviously, in the group tonight, Birgit and Dirk were the weakest. In terms of social protection and means. Certainly not by temperament, because Birgit carried on throughout her life…she never gave up. I don’t know how many other people could never let it go.
Among the witnesses is your mother. What was it like interviewing her?
I asked Marco Ponti to interview her; I couldn’t do it alone. Since this is a story we’ve talked about so much, I knew it would be impossible for her to tell it to me like it was the first time. No taking things for granted, no flights of fancy, no using the same words as always. When stories become so intimate and familiar, you almost always tell them in the same words. I sat next to Marco, who asked her his questions and mine. It turned out to be a very good interview in my opinion. Which also honestly shows my mother’s affection for this story.
What did your mother tell you about the documentary when she saw it?
She was happy, she liked it.
Where did you interview? Victor Emanuele?
In Gstaad, Switzerland. The same cabin he went to on the eve of Dirk Hammer’s death after he managed to leave Corsica.
Can you tell us the story behind the interview? What and who was in that room?
There was Emanuele Filiberto on a nearby couch, coming and going. His wife greeted us all like a great hostess and left. She reappeared at the end of the interview. It was a lodge that spoke of a dynasty, not a family. Vittorio Emanuele sat under the sword of… I can’t remember if it was Vittorio Emanuele II or his father. He took us to see the bell, which he had gone to discover on the day of his arrest, when he was taken straight from the church. They took him to Potenza in Pandata. This extraordinary tale gave me hours of laughter while editing. He told everything.
The famous trip during the arrest, during which he had to pay for gas and everything.
He had to pay for the food and beers, but the question was how he told the story. Vittorio Emanuele transforms before our eyes into many different characters. And he did it in a very physical way, with his body language. When he spoke of his father, he shrunk, in the posture a child takes when scolded or punished. Or when he told about being left alone during the boarding school holidays. I did not edit this part. I wanted to bring out his unattached childhood, but without hurting him. I also didn’t want to make him a victim.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.