Ninja Film Review: Fake News, 1940s-Style

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Ninja Film Review: Fake News, 1940s-Style

Montage of news photos and headlines about Axis Sally, the American woman who broadcast propaganda for the Nazis.
American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally

Dir.: Michael Polish


Starring: Meadow Williams, Al Pacino, Thomas Kretschmann

Finally. A movie that is historically credible. One that tells a story without turning it into history porn, or propaganda, or a 'feel-good' message about patriotism or tolerance or forgiveness or whatever.

Oh, and it's rated 14% on Rotten Tomatoes. Figures. Nobody likes unretouched photos.

For those who don't know, Mildred Gillars was known during the Second World War as 'Axis Sally'. She broadcast as part of Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine. Her broadcasts were widely listened to by US military personnel – who laughed at her – and civilians at home, who hoped to learn about their friends and relatives who had been captured by the Germans. She went around to hospitals and POW camps and did interviews. Which she edited for propaganda purposes, of course. The families were smart enough to know that: they just wanted to know if Johnny was alive.

To be clear: Gillars didn't write the scripts. That's why they were in such terrible, stilted English. That's also why people laughed at them. The broadcast consisted of ridiculously transparent claims about the superiority of the German forces, taunts directed at Roosevelt, antisemitic remarks, and really bad parodies of pop songs. 'Sally' delivered this drivel in an affectedly sweet voice. It was embarrassingly awful.

Critics have labelled the re-enactments of these scripts as a 'flaw' in the film. Want to hear Axis Sally? Here's a radio broadcast to listen to, complete with music which may annoy you. Meadow Williams gives her a sexier delivery, probably trying to help a modern audience understand the effect the original had. For her performance, you'll have to see the film.

After the war, Gillars was arrested and tried for treason. It's kind of a tricky question. She was living in Germany when the war broke out. She'd started broadcasting before the two countries were at war. When hostilities commenced, she had no way to get home, and no way to avoid imprisonment and possible death but to take the oath of allegiance to the Führer and keep going. That doesn't make her admirable, but as I said, it's a tricky question. Here's some newsreel footage.

Nobody wanted to defend her. But the US justice system demands that somebody stand up for the accused. Now, here is another problem with the film: US historical film standards require at this point that her lawyer be a very brave man who is willing to take an unpopular stand in the name of all that's holy about our system of government. Sure, he hates Axis Sally and all she stands for. His own son perished fighting fascism. But by golly, he's going to do the right thing, even if it costs him his career.

Nope. James J Laughlin was a sleazeball. I looked him up in Justia: he was later disbarred for bribery and witness tampering in an illegal abortion case. Al Pacino's got him nailed. Okay, Al Pacino has more hair than Laughlin. Call that dramatic licence, if you will.

Mildred Gillars isn't a sympathetic figure. But it's true she had a terrible childhood. And working for Joseph Goebbels was no picnic for attractive blonde women. Still, it's hard to like Gillars. But would executing her have been the solution to anything?

Yes, Goebbels could have spawned a whole #MeToo movement all by himself. If everyone hadn't been so terrified of him. Everyone except Hitler, who made him go back to his wife Magda when he started parading around with that Czech actress. You'd feel sorry for Magda if you didn't remember that she murdered her seven children. These were not nice people. Thomas Kretschmann does a superb job. After you've watched him, you feel the need for medication. Or a stiff drink.

This is what history looks like, people. Real history, that is, not the manufactured kind. Unpleasant people in horrible situations, followed by the attempt of the survivors to make sense of the mess. The prosecuting attorney – well-played by Mitch Pileggi – is no prize, either. There are no people to identify with in this film. Audiences hate that.

Was Mildred Gillars seduced by the glamour of the Nazi regime? Hardly. She was a singer/actress, who like many singer/actresses of her time found success on one continent that was denied to her on another. She was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and she made lousy decisions. Was James J Laughlin a stalwart defender of the underprivileged and falsely accused? Hardly. The film suggests that his defence of his client was prearranged with the government – enough to satisfy everyone and save her life, but not enough to let her walk away.

Gillars spent a dozen years in prison, then went off to teach French and German at a convent school. Here's my one quibble with the film: Meadow Williams obviously speaks no German at all. The dialogue limits her responses to 'ja' and 'nein', and she still manages to have an American accent. But the rest of her performance is so good we'll let her off with a warning. As a fellow former Berlitz instructor, I felt obligated to point this out.

I recommend The Trial of Axis Sally on two counts: it will show you what happened, and it won't try to sell you anything.

Joseph Goebbels would not have approved.

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