American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally tells the true story of Nazi propagandist Mildred Gillars. Born in Maine, Gillars moved to Germany in the mid-1930s to pursue her dreams as a singer and theater actress. She became the American voice of the Third Reich’s RRG. She explained to millions of listeners in Europe and the United States the superiority of the Nazis and anti-Semitic doctrine. Much like her notorious cohorts Tokyo Rose and Hanoi Hannah, Axis Sally’s gentle tones were very effective and were viewed as treason.
Director Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho, force of nature) adapted the novel “Axis Sally Confidential” by William E. Owen, who began his legal career as assistant defense attorney at her trial. The film begins with stark archive footage of World War II. The aspect ratio goes into the mailbox, Mildred Gillars (Meadow Williams) is arrested by American soldiers for high treason shortly after the fall of Germany. The time frame jumps to 1948 Washington, D.C. James Laughlin, brilliantly played by Al Pacino, a theater attorney known to defend communists, is hired by the government to defend her.
American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally then goes back to 1941 when Gillars was recruited by her lover Max Otto Koischwitz (Carsten Norgaard) to appear on the radio. It catches the eyes and ears of the despicable Joseph Goebbels (Thomas Kretschmann). Who uses them to send propaganda reports to American soldiers and, more importantly, their families back home. The Americans were heading towards certain death against an invincible enemy. Why waste your life on the “cripple” Franklin Roosevelt and the British when your economy is in tatters?
Mildred Gillars dressed like a movie star during her trial. Laughlin despised her arrogance. But she quickly earned the sympathy of his naive junior counsel Billy (Swen Temmel). When prosecutors brought witnesses and played their recordings to the jury, Laughlin found that she had no choice. Disobedience meant death. The flashbacks continue as Gillars learns the brutality of the Nazis the hard way. Their trial ended with a simple argument. Has Mildred Gillars given up her country and willingly promoted the Nazi regime? Or was she a forced accomplice in mass murders and unfathomable genocides?
American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally is an uneven film with several problems. Let’s start with what works. Al Pacino is fantastic as James Laughlin. His scenes in the courtroom are fascinating. The subdued cinematography, dark colors, and archived newsreels sell the need for retaliation after the war. The problem is that the film never quite catches you. There are long, boring stretches in which the cast of the ensemble seems completely uninspired. Her background story in Germany fiddles with her love for Max Koischwitz and the repeated attacks by Goebbles. Worse, any sympathy for Gillars’ predicament falls completely flat. A veteran actress and filmmaker, Meadow Williams is hot and cold in her portrayal of Axis Sally. The lack of cohesion must be attributed to Michael Polish. He is unable to benefit from what has worked. This results in a mixed effort that ultimately fails.
The theme of equal justice before the law is not lost. Mildred Gillars deserved a fair trial before an impartial jury, despite her treasonous actions. The strength of democracy lasts when the rule of law prevails. I just wish the film had conveyed that message better. Be warned, there are graphic rape scenes. American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally is produced by Pimienta, EFO Films and Potato Eater Productions. It is currently available on request and in a limited theatrical version from Redbox Entertainment and Vertical Entertainment.
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