The King Who Never Was, a three-episode docuseries on Netflix, focuses on a tragic event in August 1978 that shocked Europe and remains a mystery to this day. It happened while Prince Victor Emmanuel of Savoy, the last heir to the Italian throne, was vacationing at his summer residence on the island of Cavallo, France, on the southern coast of Corsica, just a short distance from Italy. In his rage at a group of “intruding” Italian party goers spending the night on their boats on the shores of Cavallo, Victor Emmanuel produced a rifle and shot a young German tourist, Dirk Hamer, sleeping on the deck of one of the boats.
The docuseries, directed by Beatrice Borromeo Casiraghi — who is married to Pierre Casiraghi, the last of the three children of Caroline of Monaco — reconstructs what happened 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 dinghy from his yacht to dock on the mainland. The prince doesn’t deny shooting his rifle, but he claims it was a second gun that shot 19-year-old Dirk Hamer, who eventually died from his injuries months later.
Victor Emmanuel was acquitted of murder charges in November 1991 by the Paris Court of Assizes and sentenced only to six months in prison for illegally carrying his firearm, used outside his home. His legal defense claimed it could not be proven without a doubt that it was Victor Emmanuel’s rifle that fired the deadly shot. It was a lengthy court battle tirelessly brought about 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 to make The Crown about her new family: The Grimaldis of the Principality of Monaco, the longest-living royal family in Europe. “My company Astrea Films is producing the film about the seizure of the fortress of Monaco by the Grimaldi family in the Middle Ages,” Borromeo reveals.
THR Roma spoke with Casiraghi about why she chose to revisit the events of 1978 with The King Who Never Was, Birgit Hamer’s years-long effort to uncover the truth and her personal connection to the story.
Returning 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 is also an old story that should be set right. A story that still has a great impact on the present. The fact that Birgit’s daughters were still trapped in it. These are waves of a distant history that continue to break over us today. I wondered why? The answer in my opinion is that when the truth does not come out, the damage continues. Until things are put right.
You said 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 was 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 feeling of helplessness about the facts, about what had happened, about the impunity that hovered around Vittorio Emanuele. I think it was one of the stories that made me choose to become a journalist.
By filming the series did you discover something you didn’t know?
So many things. There has been a lot of confusion around this story. Putting the pieces together was new, even in my house. Birgit herself found out a lot of things she didn’t know. I believe that creating confusion and procrastination was the defense strategy of the Prince’s lawyers. The whole phantom shooter theory, the reconstruction of the boats, the ballistic examinations that showed that it could not be ascertained 100 percent that the bullet came from the Prince’s rifle. They never proved that it was not him, which was also reiterated to me by his lawyer’s son, who has since died, by sending me the defense papers.
A defense put forth by the Marina Doria (Victor Emmanuel’s wife)?
She is the great protagonist, although the documentary is about Vittorio Emanuele. The series has two great female protagonists: Birgit Hamer and Marina Doria. Women who employed the same tenacity and determination to achieve two opposite ends.They are the driving forces behind everything that has happened, for better or for worse….
Why didn’t Marina Doria ever show herself on camera?
I was only able to interview her on audio because she was conscious of her age and did not want to have her face filmed. We came close several times, but I could not 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 in approaching his parents, in creating the context in which it was possible to talk, to listen to each other and to tell everything. With his mother, since she was not well, he was the one, technically, who interviewed her with my questions. He also helped with the retrieval of private materials: home movies of family friends who spent the summer riding horses, shot at the time in Super 8. She was very cooperative. I am convinced that he did this so that by dealing with this matter himself, the “case” could be closed and resolved. And maybe not fall back on his daughters, who will not have to suffer everything that has happened to him in the past 50 years.
What was his reaction when he saw the finished product?
I sent him the series two days before it aired, insisting on this to Netflix. It was important to me that he had time to draw his own conclusions before the media hype. I tried to work hard, not to be biased, I wanted to get his opinion. He told me that obviously there were many 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 to me, “We are still friends…” With lots of ellipses.
Did the eyewitnesses to the sad affair do everything they could to help Birgit?
Now they did. They really made themselves available. They provided the memories, the materials in their possession and expressed their truth. Though it was the first time in over 40 years.
If it had been one of the “peers” who was killed, instead of Dirk Hamer, would things have turned out differently?
I think that in any context where the state is absent, and there is a major failure of the system, the difference is made by the means and abilities of people to continue their own battle for justice. Clearly, in the group that night, Birgit and Dirk were the weakest. In terms of social protection and means. Certainly not in temperament, because Birgit went on her whole life … she never gave up. I don’t know how many other people would have been able to never let go.
Among the witnesses is your mother. What was it like to interview her?
I asked Marco Ponti to interview her; I could not do it myself. Since this is a story we talked about so much, I knew it would be impossible for her to tell it to me as if it were the first time. Without taking things for granted, without flights of fancy, without using the same words as always. When stories become so intimate and familiar, you almost always tell them in the same terms. I sat next to Marco, who asked her his own questions and mine. It turned out to be a very good interview, I think. Which also honestly shows my mother’s attachment to this story.
What did your mother say to you about the documentary when she saw it?
She was happy, she liked it.
Where did you interview the Victor Emanuele?
In Gstaad, Switzerland. The same chalet where he went on the eve of Dirk Hamer’s death, after managing to leave Corsica.
Can you tell us the behind-the-scenes story of the interview? What and who was in that room?
There was Emanuele Filiberto on a nearby sofa, coming and going. His wife greeted us all, like a great hostess, and then left. She reappeared at the end of the interview. It was a chalet that told of a dynasty, rather than a family. Vittorio Emanuele sat under the saber of … I can’t remember if it was Vittorio Emanuele II or his father. He took us to see the bell that he had gone to inaugurate on the day of his arrest, when they took him right from the church. They took him to Potenza in the Panda. That extraordinary tale caused me hours of laughter in the editing. He told it all.
The famous trip while under arrest during which he had to pay for gasoline and everything else.
He had to pay for the food and the beers, but the point was how he told the story. Vittorio Emanuele transformed before our eyes into many different characters. And he did it in a very physical way, with his body language. When he talked about his father he cowered, in the position a child takes when he is scolded or grounded. Or when he recounted being left alone during vacations at boarding school. This part I did not edit. I wanted to bring out his unaffectionate childhood, but without hurting him. I also didn’t want to victimize him.
Interview edited for length and clarity.