AMERICAN TRAITOR: The Trial of Axis Sally
Vertical Entertainment, Redbox Entertainment
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Polish
Writer: Vance Owen, Darryl Hicks
Cast: Al Pacino, Meadow Williams, Mitch Pileggi, Thomas Kretschmann, Lala Kent, Carsten Norgaard, Swen Temmel
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/14/21
Opens: May 28, 2021

On November 1, 1936, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini gave a speech in Milan celebrating a new treaty of friendship with Germany and a political realignment of Italy. “This Berlin-Rome protocol is not a barrier, it is rather an axis around which all European States animated by a desire for peace may collaborate on troubles.” Note the idea “animated by a desire for peace,” which marks this speech as an example of laughable propaganda. While the term propaganda, “that which is propagated (promotion of an idea)” is a neutral term, we often use the word to mean falsities invented by people in power to convince others of their plans. “American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally,” is about a woman used to broadcast propaganda during World War 2 not only to the American uniformed soldiers in Europe but also to their folks back home, advising them that so-and-so has been seriously injured, or that so-and-so is a captive of the Germans alive and treated well in a medical facility. She opined that their girlfriends are cheating on them, and that no woman wants to see her boyfriend mutiliated.

Before condemning her outright, note that she gives hope to some Americans back home who wonder whether their sons and daughters in Europe are OK. In like manner her broadcasts are voluntarily listened to by the soldiers entertained by the songs and allegedly not taken in by the propaganda. We might wonder why she was put on trial in this country for treason, a crime punishable by hanging.

Director Michael Polish, whose “Twin Falls Idaho” deals with conjoined twins, broadens his scope markedly by taking on the complex story of Mildred Gillars (Meadow Williams), an American who spent years in Germany before the war and stays on because her boyfriend, Max (Carsten Norgaard) says that he would not marry her unless she remained. She is convinced by him to play a role in Germany’s hoped for defeat of the allied powers, using her seductive radio voice and ability to sing hometown songs e.g. about Christmas. Quite a change from her job teaching English in the Berlitz school in Berlin.

Never trust a boyfriend. Max, a program director, casts Gillars in a new show called “Home Sweet Home,” which leads her to be nicknamed by Americans the “Bitch of Berlin,” “Berlin Babe,” and “Axis Sally. We watch her come under the tutelage of Germany’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Thomas Kretschmann), a perfectionist who insists that she not deviate one word from the script that he and his assistants prepare for her. After she ad-libs one word, advising Americans of the futility of their battle with the “undefeated” Germany, Goebbels goes ballistic, insisting that that his word “invincible” was ignored. As a result she is raped by Goebbels and becomes his whore. We should probably believe what she tells James Laughlin (Al Pacino) of the incident. Laughlin is defending her against the charge of treason.

Director Polish effectively shifts back and forth between Germany and the U.S., between the war zone that shows us American soldiers in Germany listening to the show, back to the U.S. where whole families sit by their radios freely listening to her. On her role in “Home Sweet Home” the prosecution under John Kelly (Mitch Pileggi) figures that this “count eight,” the most serious charge, would send her either to the gallows or to a long prison sentence. In short, “Home Sweet Home” attempts to exploit the fears of American soldiers about the home front, to make soldiers doubt their mission and their leaders. In one program, she states that Germany and America are not at war, not real enemies, that the real battle is between Jews and Gentiles within the United States.

A few scenes stand out, not without humor. When she insists that she does not want James Laughlin for her lawyer, he advises that “everyone in America hates you” and that no other lawyer would take the job. Laughlin’s treatment of his naïve young assistant, Billy Owen (Swen Temmei), fresh out of passing the bar, is condescending, by shooting down Billy’s proposed argument that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, which should be used to help win a not guilty verdict. He may have heard this in Constitutional Law 101 but this is not the way the real world thinks.

Watching the considerable trial scenes, you may well wonder how you would vote if you were on the jury. Would you condemn Axis Sally for signing an oath to the Third Reich, or let her go because you think she might have been shot if she refused? Do you buy the argument that her boyfriend Max had a hypnotic effect on her, that she would do anything he asked, or do you think an American citizen should be able to overcome her great love and refuse to propaganda for the Nazis?

The Tennessee-born Meadow Williams in the title role project a Hollywood-style beauty rather than the girl-next-door image some might expect her to have, and is well cast, made up in the 1940s style, long blond hair, elegant stature, a concentration on her make-up kit even when she is in an American jail. You may come away from this movie appreciating the idea that this was not an open-and-shut case but one whose verdict could go according to the skills of the prosecutor and the defense counsel. The film is missing an epilogue that would have noted what followed the verdict, but if you had not read up about the case, telling you the trial result in this review would be a spoiler.

107 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *