A prince in exile. A German model. A shot in the dark. An unstoppable chain of events that, after the death of a teenager, would forever entwine the lives of strangers.

The King Who Never Was, a three-episode documentary series that I directed and co-produced for Netflix, tells the story of Italy’s last heir to the throne, Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia, and that of Birgit Hamer, a German model who was convinced that Vittorio Emanuele shot and killed her younger brother Dirk and fought for decades to bring the prince to justice.

The film was a chance to set the record straight and dissipate the dark clouds that haunted this case, allowing many people to at long last find finality—myself included. It wasn’t the first time, in fact, that I was involved in this story.

Birgit, in Rome in 1979, seeks justice for Dirk.

I began hearing about Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia when I was a child, as my mother, Paola Marzotto, is one of Birgit Hamer’s closest friends. Birgit was a foreign student in Rome in the 1970s, but her carefree life was derailed when she and Dirk were invited by a group of friends on a boat trip while vacationing on the Italian island of Sardinia.

A prince in exile. A German model. A shot in the dark. An unstoppable chain of events that, after the death of a teenager, would forever entwine the lives of strangers.

It was August 17, 1978. The group of young men and women decided to go in three boats to visit the tiny French island of Cavallo, which was nicknamed “the Savoy kingdom” because it was where the exiled heir to the Italian throne spent his summers—within spitting distance of Italy.

Born in 1937, Vittorio Emanuele had been raised to believe he would become king, but the Italian monarchy ended before he had his chance—his father, Umberto II, who abdicated in 1946, was the last king of Italy. The Savoia legacy was ugly: the royal family had supported Mussolini’s rise to power and even signed his 1938 anti-Semitic laws. After the war, Italians voted by referendum to abolish the monarchy; and all male heirs were banned from setting foot on Italian soil. Vittorio Emanuele, who was nine when he was exiled, never accepted that he could not get closer to home than his summer estate a mere eight miles from the forbidden coast of Sardinia.

Vittorio Emanuele, 10, the once and never crown prince of Italy, in exile in France.

“I never quite understood why I couldn’t go back,” he said in an interview. “It was right there.”

And it could be that his conflicted relationship with the Italian people, who bowed to him when he was a toddler but banished him by the time he was a schoolboy, played a role in how irritated he became when the group of Italians arrived on his island. They were young, attractive, and boisterous, laughing, drinking beers, and diving off the many cliffs towering over the sea. Then came a twist of fate: as the Italians were about to head back to Sardinia, the weather turned, forcing them to spend the night in Cavallo.

The Savoia legacy was ugly: the royal family had supported Mussolini’s rise to power and even signed his 1938 anti-Semitic laws.

They had no food, their boats did not have a dinghy to reach the only restaurant on the island, so they brashly took one tied to a nearby yacht that had nobody on board. They didn’t know that the dinghy belonged to Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia, the prince’s six-year-old son.

It was past midnight when Vittorio Emanuele, upon discovering the disappearance of his son’s boat, went back home, took a rifle, and approached the group, yelling, “Shitty Italians, I will kill you all.” When Nicky Pende, one of the group, came out from his cabin to see what was happening, the prince shot twice. One shot was lost in the air. The second bullet missed Nicky, pierced two boats, and eventually hit Dirk, who was asleep on a boat nearby, in the femoral artery.

Emanuele loved firearms as a youth.

What followed was a couple of months of prison for Vittorio Emanuele, who after the incident signed a document accepting responsibility for the shooting, and a long agony for Dirk. During some of that time, Birgit went to live with my mother in Milan, trying to escape the pain of what was coming. Dirk, whose leg had been amputated the day after the shooting, died 111 days and 19 operations later.

My mother, who was in her early 20s, was charged with organizing his funeral, as the family couldn’t cope with the grief. At the burial, Birgit threw her ring into Dirk’s open coffin as a symbol of almost wifely devotion. My mother said, “I never thought then that it would have become a real marriage, that of Birgit with the death of her brother.”

What seemed to be just a tragic accident turned month after month into a mystery punctuated by disappearing evidence, false depositions, and even a judge who was transferred to Tahiti while investigating the case. There was no full investigation. The powers sided with the prince’s lawyers, who argued that the prince was innocent; they even posited—with no legitimate evidence—that a second shooter had actually killed Dirk.

On his deathbed in 1978, Dirk wanted to stay alive.

What no one took into account was the thirst for justice of Birgit Hamer.

Right after Dirk’s death she gave up on her acting-and-modeling career to dedicate her life to getting justice for her brother. In 1989 she moved to Paris, where she would tour French newsrooms demanding an investigation: it took 13 years for that to happen. I still remember the shock in my home when a cour d’assises in Paris acquitted the prince after a three-day trial. The many Italian friends who witnessed the shooting, and who spoke publicly for the first time on our film, reveal they were never invited to testify.

“Shitty Italians, I will kill you all.”

In those years, Birgit was very much alone, which made my mother step up even more to support her. The daily conversations about this case, at home, gave me my first taste of the concepts of injustice, impunity, and the need to have a voice.

I was in high school when the banishment of the Savoia heirs was rescinded by a constitutional amendment and they were allowed to return to Italy. I looked on in disbelief at the sight of John Paul II and the president of the republic, Carlo Ciampi, welcoming the prince with all the honors. It seemed as if this man would go on with his life without ever accepting responsibility for his crime.

Until, one day, he accidentally did.

Emanuele and his wife, Marina, in the “Savoy kingdom” on the French island of Cavallo.

In 2006, the prince was arrested on charges of prostitution and gambling and spent one week in jail. He was later acquitted of those charges, but during his time in jail something happened that had the potential to reopen the homicide case.

While in prison, Vittorio Emanuele was recorded talking to his cellmates about the 1978 shooting in Cavallo. Rumor had it that, after denying it for more than 40 years, he had finally admitted that he was responsible for Dirk Hamer’s death. The prince brazened out the press reports, claiming the media had doctored the audiotape to make it sound as if he were admitting guilt, but he emphatically insisted that he had not.

At the time, I was working as a reporter for the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, and I discovered there was also a hidden video camera in Vittorio Emanuele’s cell. That’s when Birgit and I began looking for the videotape of that conversation. It took us five years of research and countless petitions to the justice authorities, but in the end, because Birgit was the sister of the victim, the authorities granted her access to the tape.

A mystery punctuated by disappearing evidence, false depositions, and even a judge who transferred to Tahiti while investigating the case.

In the video, the prince, lounging across a prison cot with his back to the camera, mocked the French judges who acquitted him: “Even though I was in the wrong, I have to say that I fooled them all…. I was sure I was going to win (that trial), I was more than sure.” And then he mimed the act of shooting: “I fired a shot like this and one like that, and the bullet went there, and took him in the leg, whilst he was lying down, going through (the boat’s) hull.”

When I wrote about the videotape for my newspaper, I was very critical of the prince and also of his wife and son, who never stopped supporting him. The Savoia family sued me, Birgit, and the paper, but eventually we won.

The judges of Italy’s Supreme Court—the Corte Suprema di Cassazione—ruled in 2017 that the Birgit’s family’s right to bring these facts to light took precedence over the Savoias’ claim that their privacy had been violated. Yet despite the prison confession, the case against the prince couldn’t be reopened because of double jeopardy. He couldn’t be tried for the same crime twice. Instead, the Supreme Court concluded that the videotape could be shared because Vittorio Emanuele was the only responsible party in the death of Dirk Hamer.

“Even though I was in the wrong, I have to say that I fooled them all.”

Given the history, I thought that I would be the last person to whom the prince would entrust the story of his life, although I desperately needed him to participate. I wasn’t proud of the articles I wrote when I published the video—I allowed my personal history to play too big of a role, making me unwilling to hear his side of things. This documentary was a unique occasion for me to break that dynamic, to be fair, and to help my mother, Birgit, and her daughters—who are like little sisters to me—to free themselves from a past that wouldn’t pass. I needed to be completely objective and ready not only to listen to the prince but to look for moments of empathy with him as well. The only problem was that he didn’t know what I was thinking.

The prince’s wife, Marina, and their son, Emanuele Filiberto, have been unwavering in their defense of the prince.

It took about five months to convince him to meet with me. During that time I wrote letters to everyone we knew in common and eventually got a meeting with his son, Emanuele Filiberto. His willingness to give me a chance was probably the result of that same craving for closure that, in different degrees, we all felt. He, too, needed to face this story fully once and for all, so as to put it behind him.

Emanuele decided to become a bridge between me and his parents, helping me gather never-before-seen home movies of his family. Eventually, he convinced his father to sit down with me. What followed was the most unfiltered and kaleidoscopic interview the prince has ever given.

Many truths came out, sometimes hidden by his words but expressed through body language, sharp stares, and awkward jokes trying to conceal old pains. But the most emotional part was accompanying the new generation—Emanuele Filiberto and Birgit’s daughters, all of whom had been unwitting victims—on this journey of discovery. In 2022, Birgit and I revisited the places we’d been with Dirk in Rome. I took her daughters back to Cavallo, where it all happened, and where they finally felt freed of the weight of this inherited trauma.

We could all, finally, turn the page.

Beatrice Borromeo is an Italian filmmaker and the founder of the production company Astreafilms, based in Monaco. Her latest documentary, The King Who Never Was, is available on Netflix