In 1981’s “Lili Marleen,” directed by German provocateur R.W. Fassbinder, the titular song is repeatedly played to an imprisoned man in an effort to break his spirit. In “American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally,” it takes only one rendition to have much the same effect on the viewer, though that may be because by the time Mildred Gillars (Meadow Williams) performs it at some Nazi Party party, we’ve already had an hour of this utterly absurd movie, and are ready to crack.
Clumsy, campy and kitsch, but also deadeningly dull for long stretches, “American Traitor” is directed by Michael Polish (“The Astronaut Farmer”) and based on the true story of radio star Gillars, aka Axis Sally, an American wannabe actress who found notoriety as the English-language voice of the Third Reich’s propaganda machine. But the film swings very wide of recorded history, especially in terms of Gillars’ interactions with Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels (Thomas Kretschmann), which here earn the film its R-rating for sexual violence.
Still, futzing with facts to ramp up the salacious melodrama could have made for something interestingly strange and seedy, much like the pencil mustache sported by Al Pacino in his role as Laughlin, Gillars’ defense lawyer. But it’s just so badly done. “American Traitor” happens on the perfect microcosm of itself when brief archive footage of Gillars has Williams’ face mapped onto it using what appears to be a beta version of Snapchat’s faceswap filter. You’ve heard of deepfakes? This is historical shallowfake at its most yikes-worthy.
The story unfolds in momentum-killing cross-cuts between Gillars’ 1948 treason trial in America, and the bars, boudoirs and recording booths of Berlin between the years 1941 and 1945. But the plodding script, co-written by Polish, Vance Owen and Darryl Hicks, doesn’t seem to notice that the two timelines are at loggerheads. Gillars, apparently a woman of 400 hats and one expression, is impossible to root for when, encouraged by narcissism and her Nazi lover/svengali (Carsten Norgaard), she busily sets about demoralizing listening GIs with breathy insinuations about what their girlfriends are getting up to without them. Yet later, we’re supposed to feel for her — the violins of Kubilay Uner’s otherwise anonymous score certainly do. At the trial she’s framed as a martyr to public opinion and a victim of men who she claims, in a Marilyn-style sex-kitten purr very unlike the real woman’s plummy tones, “have taken advantage of me my whole life.”
It’s a portrait that aims for movingly enigmatic but ends up mystifyingly immobile. Williams is so carefully primped, so artfully posed in shafts of slatted light and so gauzily fawned over by Jayson Crothers’ scrupulously steam-ironed digital photography, that she ends up more costumed mannequin than conflicted heroine. The people around her — actors who seem to occupy different solar systems even when in the same room — don’t fare much better.
Kretschmann’s Goebbels is a pantomime of sneering sexual sadism. Mitch Pileggi’s blunt watchability is underused as prosecuting DA John Kelly. And Laughlin’s greenhorn sidekick, Billy Owen (Swen Temmel), presumably the same William Owen who co-authored the hard-to-track-down book on which the screenplay is based, serves no visible narrative purpose at all, except to be yet another man mesmerized by Gillars’ charms. “You made me laugh at a time when nothing much did,” he confesses to her, which is odd because Gillars is not especially funny, except unintentionally when her broadcast pivots from antisemitism and remarks about that “cripple of a President” to a rousing chorus of “Yes We Have No Bananas.”
As for Pacino, it’s hard to work out if he is miscast or if everybody but Pacino is miscast, but he delivers the film’s only strong dramatic beat. True, it’s not clear why or how Laughlin suddenly conjures up his barnstorming closing statement, and also true that his hair is so bizarrely styled it becomes its own distracting continuity issue. But the speech is our only glimpse of this devil’s advocate in proper blustery mode: In terms of Pacino theatrics, the abrupt volume increase and rising cadence on the phrase “…a LYNCH MOB?” is no “…ABSENTEE LANDLORD!” but it will have to do.
Money was spent: The movie is unconvincing but lavishly so, with costume changes, florid hairstyles and multitudinous hat-trimmings alone accounting for a vast percentage of its entertainment value. But while there’s no skimping on wardrobe or set dressing, it summons little of the atmosphere of wartime Berlin or post-war D.C., perhaps because it was largely shot in Puerto Rico. Whether the real Axis Sally got her just deserts in that courtroom 70 years ago is debatable. But that the clunky cosplay of “American Traitor” is her biopic legacy may provide some comfort to those who feel she got off too lightly.