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Movies Massacre in RomeSurely one of the lesser known movies from the Italian film corpus on WW II is Massacre in Rome,  (Rappresaglia) 1971, by George P Cosmatos, produced by Carlo Ponti.  Richard Burton plays a somewhat conflicted SS officer, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, an actual person. Marcello Mastroianni is Father Pietro Antonelli. a composite of several actual Vatican priests.

The heart of the story, is taken from a Robert Katz’ controversial history, Death in Rome, 1967, about the Ardeatine Massacre, in which 335 Italians were executed in reprisal for the deaths of 33 German soldiers. Katz’ strongly contested finding was that Pius XII knew of the impending executions, and through his long relation with the Fascists, could have had some influence to stop or postpone it.  He did nothing.  In the movie, for which Katz receives shared script credit,  we never see the Pope. Instead, Father Antonelli (Mastroianni), a minor functionary in the Vatican, desperately pleads with his superior to go to the Pope and get him to use his good offices with the Germans. The answer comes back that to intervene would risk other important duties of the Pope, principally to beat back godless Bolshevism.

The release of the movie, in fact, kicked off a legal proceeding against Katz, Ponti and Cosmatos, brought by Pius XII’s niece, for “defaming the memory” of her uncle.  A trial found the men guilty and they were given suspended sentences, Katz of 14 months.  The judgments were set aside in 1980 by Italy’s Supreme Court, though the scurrility of Katz’ claim is still proclaimed by some.  Vatican archives later opened indicate that the Pope indeed knew of the coming reprisals, though closer to the actual event than the book or film indicates.

Though Antonelli’s desperation and disappointment are clearly shown, the actual pleading, negotiation, back and forth do not make up much of the movie.  It is not a film of argument but of action.  The question at the center is a moral one, but in execution it is a war movie.

The action, actual and filmed, takes place in Rome, March 1944 just 10 weeks before the Germans are drinen from Rome (but not yet Italy.) Over the opening titles Fascist radio says the Allies are being driven back at Monte Cassino, that there is increasing division between the allies and, that the daily bread ration is being decreased.  Shots of men through bridge railings, lowering newspapers and walking off, quick meetings and brief messages, helmeted German troops march by alert us to imminent action.  The local partisans, having grown stronger since Mussolini’s downfall in July 1943, are increasing their strength in the Eternal City.

The German officers, SS and Wehrmacht, are all aware of the advancing Allies.  Some think the war will soon be over. Others are confident that the Fuhrer knows best.  The BBC nightly radio reading of potential war criminals has a different impact on the two groups.

The IED set off by a street-sweeper is successful.  33 German soldiers are killed (misidentified in the film as SS troops, actually Austrian regular army.) Wehrmacht Lieutenant-General Kurt  Maelzer demands a 50 to 1 retribution.  Lt. Col. Kappler argues that “retribution does an end-run and gets it reduced to 20-1 and the victims to be taken from prisoners sentenced to death or life imprisonment rather than in a round-up.  Not enough? Then add those accused of capital crimes but not yet tried.  Still not enough?  Add some Jews.  In the end 335 Italian men and  boys are killed, execution style, by a company led by Kappler.

Italian civilians arrested in Rome by German troops after attack on German soldiers.

Italian civilians arrested in Rome by German troops after attack on German soldiers.

Some confusion in the visual signals will arise in today’s audiences, Italian as well as American I would imagine.  The various uniforms are not easily recognizable as being from different parts of the German armies. We are not clear what hierarchy obtains, or why Kappler can so robustly argue with  his ranked superior Lt General Kurt Malzer nor, for that matter, why Nazi officers have hands casually jammed into pockets. Similarly, the place in the Vatican hierarchy, and proximity of priests to the never-seen Pope could have been made clearer.

The build of tension during the planning and execution of the bombing is excellently done with quick cuts, close ups of searching eyes and a good thematic score by Ennio Moriconne, most famous for his Fistful of Dollars scores (already written by this time), and credited with over 500 movie scores.

Richard Burton plays a by-the-books officer, initially tamping down the fury of his superior officer, the fuming, blustery Lt. Gen. Maelzer, played by Leo McKernand is clearly unhappy with the order for retribution. “Reprisals never stopped anyone, General … they punish no one but the victims, and their executioners.” In the end, however, he carries it out ruthlessly.  Though it is always a bit unfair to compare movies to the books, or even the facts, from which they are drawn, the compulsion to do so is real.  In fact, the roles of the two officers in history were reversed — Kappler the driving, obsessed vengeance seeker and Maelzer the more cautious, with more of a sense of old-school, pre-Nazi, military honor, aware of the likely consequences of killing civilians.  Especially in films based on historical characters, what is the difficulty in writing stories to adhere to those basics?

Mastroianni does a creditable job as Father Antonielli, in a decidedly non comic role.  Though clearly a pastor to all Italians, and so to the partisans, he doesn’t seem to be one of those, as The Priest in Last Chance, (reviewed here) who will smuggle guns or secret messages.  He does lie to the Germans at one point.  He shelters several partisans on the run from the German dragnet.  As the executions are carried out, he joins the victims, as did the real Father Pietro Papagallo.

The director George P. Cosmatos, became better known for American action films, “with a European heart” as he later said: Rambo: First Blood Part II , 1985, . Cobra, 1986 and Tombstone, 1993 among others.  Massacre in Rome doesn’t share in this later love of action over morality, but one can see the roots of his film interest, street shots of marching boots, close ups of passing helmets, executions in subterranean caves.

The films that grip me always have moral action at the center.  How do people, subordinate in some way, respond to domination in any of its forms? Who stands up?  Who flees?  Who tries to compromise?  Part of what interests me is not only the characters but the decisions of the film maker. Where does he, or she stand? What is the meta-attitude of the creator? Is courage shown in the choice of story and how it is presented? Or do we sense flight in misplace irony or humor?  Are the themes  of human striving, resistance and domination truly explored, or only used to excite and profit?

Massacre is still of the genre of post-war Italian films, beginning with Rosellini’s Rome, Open City, in which Italians are drawn as resistance heroes, with not too much complexity.  Here, 18 years after the end of the war, the Germans  –mostly as portrayed by Burton but in some of his superiors also– are not drawn as purely evil. One of the fundamental tensions in the film is whether greater or fewer numbers of Italians will be killed.  Kappler/Burton argues that, in the case of the IED killing of German soldiers, the Italians who did it will be seen as the “wild animals,” not the Germansl; to over react would be to give up the “high ground.”  He is aware, with the Allies approaching and Germans still occupying the City, of the psychology of gathering support or creating opposition.  As the decision to execute is reaching its final stages it is supremely interesting that two officers, by telephone, refuse a superior’s direct orders to carry out the executions. An unheard of action in any military film I have seen. A nod, at least, to the idea that even in punishing regimes, some will “non cooperate with evil,” as Gandhi phrased it.  Kappler’s reluctance does not reach that far.

Instead of closing credits the names, ages and occupations of the 335 who died in the actual Ardeatine Massacre are rolled. Somber death drum beats, their ages, from 15 to 75, and the normalcy of their occupations — bricklayer, butcher, polisher, chauffeur– hold our attention to the end.

It is interesting to learn, from the voice-over at the end of the movie and from further research, that the officers portrayed were hunted down, jailed and some executed for their parts in this particular war crime, as well as others.  Many were in prison within a year after the end of the war.  Thus far, 40+ years after the end of the US war in Vietnam, only one officer has served any time for carrying out similar acts against the Vietnamese.  Lt William Calley, served three and one half years of house arrest, and was pardoned by Richard Nixon. Though some of his superiors were tired in military courts martials, none were found guilty. The massacres at Mai Lai involved several hundred dead and the rape of many women and girls. [For a detailed look at My Lai and many similar reprisals against civilians see Nick Turse’s 2013 Kill Anything the Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.]

Another film with these two, Priest and Nazi, at the center, though not the Ardeatine Massacre, is the 1983 BBC television movie, The Scarlet and the BlackGregory Peck plays Monseignor Hugh O’Flaherty, one of the priests Antonelli was based on. Christopher Plummer plays Col Kappler.  Interestingly, in life and the film, O’Flaharty visited Kappler in prison every month for over ten years.  He converted to Catholicism before eventually leaving prison and dying soon thereafter of cancer.

Katz followed up Death in Rome with The Battle for Rome: the Germans, the Allies, the Partisans and the Pope, September 1943-June 1944, Simon & Schuster, 2003. the last non-fiction book before his 2012 death.  Apparently it extends the argument and context for the earlier book, for which it has been criticized.  [Another recent and very interesting book on Pius XII predecessor, Pius XI, is The Pope and Mussolini by David Kertzer.]

For more on Robert Katz, here is the NY Times Obituary of 2010


I haven’t found Massacre in Rome easily available from streaming sources.  The copy I bought is a European DVD, needing non US specific players.  The images are not as bright as they might be and there are a few clipped audio pieces.  It’s a good candidate for the fine Criterion restoration treatment.