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Five Cent Cine (At Home): Syndrome K

The disease that saved the Jews

This small documentary relates a stranger-than-fiction event that unfolded during the German occupation of Rome in World War II. A trio of doctors at a Vatican-owned hospital on Rome’s Tiber Island (Isola Tiburina) invented malatia K (or Disease K or Syndrome K, in English), a (supposedly) ferociously contagious and deadly disease. When the Germans came to the hospital demanding to search the wards for Jews, the doctors told them one ward was closed because of the disease: they were welcome to enter, but they might contract the disease and die. Thus were the Germans sent away without capturing these dozens of Jews who had escaped the October 14, 1943 roundup (“rastrellamento”) and deportation to death camps of more than 1,000 Jews.

Giovanni Borromeo

Director Stephen Edwards, in his first feature documentary (he is an experienced sound producer), tells this amazing story of courage and creativity mostly through interviews with two of the doctors who lived long lives, one to almost 100—Adriano Ossicini and Vittorio Sacerdoti (the latter a Jew working under an assumed name in the hospital)—and Pietro Borromeo, the son of the third doctor, Giovanni Borromeo. Their interviews are supplemented with others—relatives of the doctors and especially Suzanne Brown-Fleming of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The movie is rounded out with film and still photos from the period and a few re-enactments; the latter (two of them shown more than once) add little.

Hospital Fatebenefratelli

The stories of the three doctors are the heart of the documentary. They are at once the best parts and at the same time not carefully labeled, so that the viewer can easily forget who is talking. Beyond the doctors’ interviews, “Syndrome K” wanders too far afield in describing the presence of the Germans in Rome, including, for example, the brave attempt of a few Italians to fight off the invaders at Porta San Paolo; the via Rasella partisan bombing of German troops; and the subsequent Fosse Ardeatine Nazi massacre of more than 300 men. There’s even a clip from Roberto Rosselini’s post-war classic, Roma città aperta (as if it’s historical footage). It’s possible the filmmakers concluded they did not have enough material on the events that focused on Syndrome K. One never experiences the feeling of being inside the Hospital Fatebenefratelli (translation: “Good Works Brothers”), which still stands on the island. Nor do the writers explain in any detail what happened to the Jews who were only temporarily sequestered there. How did they get out? Where did they go? Did they continue to escape deportation?

Suzanne Brown-Fleming, with other talking heads and voice-over (Ray Liotta), implies that the Roman Catholic Church did all it could—under the circumstances—to protect the Jews. She even makes a case for “understanding” the political predicament of Pope Pius XII. This is a controversial statement about a Pope whose near silence in the face of the Nazi extermination campaign has never been adequately explained, even by his supporters. The scholarship of those with a contrary position—David Kertzer among them—is ignored.

The documentary perpetuates, as well, the “myth of the good Italian.” Brown-Fleming repeats the shibboleth that all Romans were either in hiding or hiding Jews. This is far from the truth. Guri Schwartz, of the University of Genoa, cites evidence that half of the 6,000 Italian Jews (out of 25,000 living in Italy then) who were arrested, deported and killed were deported as a result of the efforts of Italians, or of Italians and Germans working together. Taking a more nuanced position might weaken the arc of the documentary, but it would make for a more accurate and interesting telling.

The creation of the fake disease—the “K” an ironic play on the names of two Nazis leading German operations in Rome and Italy, Herman Kappler and Albert Kesserling—is a tale worth telling and disseminating more widely. In a blog post last year, we excerpted part of Il giusto che invento’ il morbo di k., a book by Pietro Borromeo. Although one could wish it were a better documentary, “Syndrome K” does help spread the word of this bold project and the bravery of its participants.

Date: USA release date June 1, 2021

Stars: 2

Director: Stephen Edwards

Starring: Pietro Borromeo, Adriano Ossicini, Vittorio Sacerdoti, Suzanne Brown-Fleming, as themselves; Ray Liotta, voiceover

Languages: English, Italian (subtitled in English)

Runtime: 80 minutes

Syndrome K ★ (out of 4 stars)

Availability: Circulating in streaming mode in Jewish Film Festivals around the United States; search for ones that might be available when you wish to watch it (2 Film Critics saw it thanks to the Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival). Availability here will be updated when more information is forthcoming.

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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