See if this sounds familiar.
A highly contagious virus is discovered in a densely populated city, and without proper attention it could spread to the rest of the continent, if not the entire planet. Those affected are quarantined or isolated, and selfless caregivers put their own lives at risk while frantically working on a cure and vaccine.
This particular disease was not hatched in Wuhan, China, in 2020 but rather at the Fatebenefratelli Hospital on Tiber Island (Italian: Isola Tiberina) in Rome, in October of 1943. Primarily used as a hospice at the adjoining San Giovanni Calibita Church since its founding in 1535, the facility was expanded into a full-service hospital in 1934 by Dr. Giovanni Borromeo and Catholic priest Father Maurizio Blalek.
A ‘Fake’ Virus?
In the wake of the Nazi invasion in September, Borromeo, Dr. Adriano Ossicini, and Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti discovered what would soon be known as “Syndrome K” (Italian: Il Morbo di K).
Well, perhaps “discovered” is the wrong word; the three physicians “invented” Syndrome K. Correction: The doctors didn’t actually invent the disease; they made it up out of thin air. Syndrome K the “disease” never existed, but the propaganda theory Syndrome K served as a carefully orchestrated ruse to fool some of the most abhorrent human beings to ever inhabit the earth.
The creators of the plan evidently also had wicked senses of humor, as the “K” stood for both Herbert Kappler and Albert Kesselring, two high-ranking German SS officers present in Rome at the time. On the surface and officially, the “K” stood for “Koch” or “Kreps” diseases, which were also fictitious monikers (although a Dr. Koch discovered the tuberculosis bacteria). Unofficially, the “K” was used to identify Jewish patients.
The Not-So-Scarlet ‘K’
When the Nazis began transporting Italian Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe, others sought refuge or asylum in the hospital across the Tiber River from the Jewish ghetto. This was the sole reason that “Syndrome K” was instituted: to hide Italian Jews in plain sight, right under the Germans’ noses.
One wonders why the Germans didn’t bring in one of their own physicians to confirm the Italians’ claims, but this could be because the doctors painted such a grim and horrific picture of the situation. When offered an opportunity to actually see the “patients,” the non-medically trained German officers demurred and split the scene with their metaphorical tails between their legs.
In order to make the whole endeavor convincing, the doctors kept the entire hospital staff (for their own safety) in the dark. If they didn’t know that the mission was thoroughly concocted, they could never be accused of any type of criminal (or anti-German) conspiracy.
The physicians also “coached” the patients to act sick: to cough loudly as if they were afflicted with tuberculosis. In theory, Syndrome K was a neurological illness with symptoms that included, but were not limited to, convulsions, paralysis, dementia, and eventually death from asphyxiation.
While the number is not official, it is estimated that the three Italian doctors and their unwitting staff saved approximately 100 Italian Jews over about 10 months until U.S. Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army liberated Rome in May of 1944.
That might not be many when compared to the 1,200 Polish Jews saved by Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler, but think of the countless generations that survived only because of the efforts of these brave men.
If you choose to (but shouldn’t) exclude Sacerdoti, who because he was Jewish had to go under the alias “Salviucci,” Schindler, and the two other doctors had no reason to risk their lives for such dangerous undertakings. They must have decided that they had the will and wherewithal to simply do the right thing.
Pope Pius XII
Of the many great achievements in this enlightening film by director, producer, and composer Stephen Edwards and writer Gregory Ballard is their inclusion of Pope Pius XII. Initially presented as someone who chose to remain silent or neutral during the German occupation of Rome (and by proxy, Vatican City) and the plight of the Jews, Pius XII is ultimately presented as a master politician who, for lack of a better word, “stalled” the Nazis for as long as he could.
As demonic and patently evil as Hitler and the Nazis were, they must have known that taking aggressive and offensive action against the leader of the Catholic Church would have only added to their ever-surmounting woes.
The principal purpose of a film critic (if I’m doing my job correctly) is to judge all aspects of a movie, which includes not only its intent and message(s) but also its technical prowess and shortcomings. Based solely on content, this movie would rate 5 out of 5; based on execution, 1 out of 5.
It is not unusual for documentaries, particularly those dealing with subject matter as old as this one’s, to rely mostly on still photos as well as stock and archival footage that is visually less than ideal; it’s almost expected, and that is the case here. Unfortunately, many of the post-war and all of the modern-day segments of the movie—where the doctors, survivors, and their descendants are interviewed—are a de facto disaster.
While the interviewees are speaking in Italian, their words are also spoken by voice actors in English with real (or not) Italian accents and in text as English subtitles. While unnecessary, this wouldn’t be a total bust if the English subtitles matched their English audio counterparts, but frequently they don’t. For example, when someone says “Pope Pius,” the accompanying text reads “Popeyes.”
These completely avoidable and constantly distracting faux pas should have been addressed during post-production, but obviously they were not.
Presented in English and Italian with dubbed English and subtitled Italian.
Director: Stephen Edwards
Running Time: 52 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 16, 2022
Rating: 3 out of 5