American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally Parent Guide
History this intriguing should result in a more compelling film.
Parent Movie Review
At the end of World War II, Allied powers set to work finding, arresting, and trying Nazi conspirators and collaborators for their crimes. Although the Nuremburg Trials attracted a (well deserved) lion’s share of public attention, they certainly did not bring every Nazi to justice. One such collaborator, Mildred Gillars (Meadow Williams), was better known as “Axis Sally”, an American radio personality who appeared in German State Radio broadcasts intended to weaken the morale of U.S. troops.
Back in the United States in 1949, the truth about her participation in the Nazi regime is going to be determined in trial. Prosecutors want the death penalty, and the only men standing between her and a long drop from a short rope are her lawyers, James Laughlin (Al Pacino) and Billy Owen (Swen Temmel). But with public opinion determinedly against her, the advocates face an uphill battle to keep her alive.
I had high hopes for this movie, which was, as usual, a fatal error on my part. I assumed that a historical courtroom drama with Al Pacino would inevitably be entertaining. I was wrong. There are a handful of significant problems here, and the largest is with the history. This film keeps coming back to scenes of sexual violence against Gillars, both by her stepfather and by Nazi propaganda director Joseph Goebbels. Now, while this would be tragic if true (and unsurprising in the case of a brutal Nazi like Goebbels), I can find no such allegations by Gillars herself or in the historical record. So audiences are left wondering – was Gillars a victim of sexual assault or do these episodes simply emerge from the fervid imagination of a screenwriter? Apart from leading to two extremely unpleasant scenes, all raising this issue does is muddy the historical waters.
On a more cinematic level, it also confuses the story. There’s plenty of moral ambiguity in the history without creating new events. The ethics of defending Nazi collaborators, the morality of the death penalty, and the non-violent role Gillars played are all fascinating areas from which the movie repeatedly wanders off to speculate about the sexual history of the accused. It makes the film feel unfocused and disingenuous.
I wish the filmmakers had thought to either back up their claims or stick to the record more closely, because the cast is solid, and the story should be interesting – but it isn’t. Instead, we have a confused, historically dubious, and meandering mess. But at the end of the day, even if Axis Sally simply a persona of convenience, I think Gillars still has a lot to answer for. To quote Kurt Vonnegut: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”Directed by Michael Polish. Starring Al Pacino, Meadow Williams, and Thomas Kretschmann. Running time: 109 minutes. Theatrical release May 28, 2021. Updated May 28, 2021
Watch the trailer for American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally
American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally
Rating & Content Info
Why is American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally rated R? American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally is rated R by the MPAA for sexual assault.
Violence: There are two scenes depicting sexual violence. Historical footage is shown depicting the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Sexual Content: There are two scenes depicting sexual violence with no nudity. There are references to child sexual abuse.
Profanity: There is one sexual expletive and occasional uses of mild profanity and terms of deity.
Alcohol / Drug Use: Adults are infrequently seen drinking and smoking.
Page last updated May 28, 2021
American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally Parents' Guide
What do you think “Axis Sally” deserved for her part in the German propaganda machine? Do you think her 30-year sentence was fair? How much responsibility do you think she bears for her participation? If she participated under threat of death, does that excuse her behaviour?
Wikipedia: Mildred Gillars
History Net: Axis Sally: The Americans Behind the Infamous Nazi Propaganda Broadcast
Sexual violence was tragically common during the war, with massive outbreaks of rape occurring on almost every front of the conflict and perpetrated by both sides. What kind of public acknowledgement have been made by different countries? What has your country said about their conduct in the war?
Loved this movie? Try these books…
Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut follows Howard W. Campbell, an American who finds himself working for the Nazis as a propagandist, and more seriously addresses themes of complicity and responsibility. Denial is based partly on Deborah Lipstadts book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.
Mildred Gillars has been the subject of numerous books including Axis Sally by M. Williams Fuller, Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany by Richard Lucas, and Axis Sally by Robert Livingston.
Another American responsible for treasonous radio broadcasts was Iva Toguri D’Aquino, a Japanese American who was one of the women who played the part of Tokyo Rose. More information about her is available in The Tokyo Rose Case: Treason on Trial by Yasuhide Kawashima.
Related home video titles:
There are several famous films about Nazi war crimes trials, namely Judgement at Nuremburg, Nuremburg, and Operation Finale, which focuses on the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann in the 1960s. Denial covers the real-life trial of Deborah Lipstadt, who was sued by a holocaust denier. If you want to see exactly what Gillars was complicit in, Schindler’s List is one of the best films about the holocaust. The trial ultimately convicted her for one broadcast, “Vision of Invasion”, which speculated about the D-Day landings: Those landings can be seen at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.