1973's Massacre in Rome is a surprisingly artful Euro co-production concerning the Ardeatine Caves massacre in 1944. The film calls to mind a later, more acclaimed film concerning a list. Except, in this instance, the list means death, not life.
As a reprisal for the murder of 33 German soldiers by partisans in Rome, Hitler orders the execution of 330 Italians. The orders are carried out, though they prove to be a logistical nightmare. Much of the film consists of the routine compiling of this list of names; the interminable squabbling between jurisdictions; the swapping of responsibilities between ranks; and the eventual swelling of the names from the rolls of the usual suspects - petty criminals, communists and Jews. And then locating a site of execution which would also serve as a burial ground. All of this takes place in the beautiful and elegant surrounds of high art and architecture, and director George Pan Cosmatos misses no opportunity to provide brutal contrasts between human frailty and human potential. Much of the film's visual palette is an attempt to capture these contrasts, and at times it is spectacularly successful, particularly during the ambush sequence in Via Rasella.
At the centre of it all is a splendidly robotic performance by Richard Burton as Kappler, the SS Officer with responsibility for the executions, whose self-pity degenerates into a self-serving fatalism that he wears as a badge of duty. It is a sympathetic portrait swaddled in diction and middle-distance, and one of Burton's finer moments. It should be noted that this portrayal of Kappler departs from the historical truth - he was in fact an ardent and zealous Nazi. Leo McKern plays his hot-headed superior, happy to delegate the dirty jobs, but less interested in their details. His ravaged one-eyed face is perfectly evasive in this instance, happy to see and not to see as it suits. Marcello Mastroianni handles the difficult role of Father Antonelli with some sympathy; he is less successful appealing to Kappler's conscience than he is organising his frocks around Vatican indifference. In the end it is the German appeal to self-interest, with the Americans at the gates of Rome, that has more sway in determining the list.
Where Massacre in Rome falters is in its production values, which are those common to Euro co-productions during the 70s (dubbed minor parts), and in a fairly blunt script which introduces an unnecessary melodramatic twist to the end-proceedings. Still, it is full of memorable scenes, perhaps the most striking of which is Kappler instructing his officers on the task of close-range execution by picking out a junior by way of demonstration. If Massacre in Rome is remembered at all today it is perhaps that of an understudy to Schindler's List; but it tells a darker truth - that most lists mean death, not life.