Some actors will do anything to get a part. The subject of a new movie, Mildred Gillars (1900–1987)—a drama school reject and disillusioned former Broadway chorus girl and vaudevillian—blossomed poisonously during World War II as “Midge,” Berlin Reich Radio’s star D.J. and anti-Semitic announcer. She supposedly had a sensationally sexy coo but was, in fact, more Mrs. Miniver than Marilyn Monroe.
Gillars’s claim that she was “the Irish type…a real Sally” earned her notoriety as “Axis Sally,” the weaponized Yank femme fatale of the Nazi propaganda machine, which deployed her to deter G.I.’s from fighting in Europe. Her vicious broadcasts were meant to make them feel homesick and paranoid about what their wives and sweethearts were getting up to. Yet Air Corps corporal Edward Van Dyne said in 1944, “We get an enormous bang out of her. We love her.”
Gillars might not have needed much coercing to become Axis Sally, as Michael Polish’s film American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally suggests.
Gillars’s vile messages were scripted for her by Max Otto Koischwitz, who had been her professor in German literature (and mentor in hating Jews) at Manhattan’s Hunter College. She met the married intellectual again in Berlin, where he’d been appointed propagandist programmer of Reich Radio’s English-language service, and became his mistress.
Accompanied by her mother Mary, Gillars had fetched up there in the mid-1930s and staved off impoverishment by teaching English at the Berlitz language school, writing subtitles for the U.F.A. film company, ghost-writing anti-Semitic movie reviews for Variety, and assisting stage and screen star Brigitte Horney. Mary returned to the U.S. in 1939; they never met again.
In 1940, Gillars joined the Reich Radio, initially disseminating arts chat and jazz. She signed an oath of allegiance to Hitler after her off-air denunciation of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor attracted the Gestapo’s attention.
“We get an enormous bang out of her. We love her.”
Intentionally or not, the movie ratchets up the ambiguities surrounding Gillars. It cuts between her life as Axis Sally and her Washington, D.C. trial for treason in 1949. Portrayed as icy and supercilious by Meadow Williams, Gillars is defended with much wily showboating by James J. Laughlin (Al Pacino, to the manner born). His sophistries—and Williams’s inscrutable performance—muddy rather than clarify the issue of whether Gillars was a genuine traitor or a Nazi slave terrified of being sent to a concentration camp if she disobeyed her handlers.
Flashbacks show Gillars being raped by Goebbels (Thomas Kretschmann)—partial to actresses as the Nazi propaganda minister was—and attempting to assassinate him. More plausible is her tender relationship with Koischwitz (Carsten Norgaard), whose 1944 death from tuberculosis devastated Gillars.
Tried on 10 counts of treason, Gillars was convicted on one: for acting in Koischwitz’s pre-D-Day radio play Visions of Invasion, in which she played a mother from Ohio (where Gillars was raised) who dreams her son dies horrifically in the English Channel. (Italy’s radio propagandist Rita Zucca served nine months; Gillars’s fellow American William Joyce, who sneered at British listeners as Lord Haw-Haw, was executed; Japan’s Tokyo Rose turned out to be a number of anonymous Japanese women who broadcast to U.S. servicemen in the South Pacific.)
Awaiting the jury’s verdict in the film, Gillars tells Laughlin’s rookie assistant Billy Owen (Swen Temmel) she was abused by her drunken father and “raped for years” by her stepfather. The revelation doesn’t exonerate Gillars but elucidates her ruinous journey—just as childhood rape explains the self-destructiveness of another Midwestern actress who found fame in Berlin: the luminous Kansan Louise Brooks.
Like Brooks, who enjoyed a second career as a movie essayist, Gillars rejuvenated herself late in life. After serving 12 years of her 10–30-year prison sentence at a West Virginia women’s reformatory, she was released in 1961. Gillars lived anonymously in a convent in Columbus, Ohio, and taught German, French, and music at a local academy. Some 55 years after she left Ohio Wesleyan University without completing her drama degree, Gillars graduated from there with a B.A. in speech in 1973.
Rejuvenation doesn’t mean redemption. Gillars’s biographer Richard Lucas learned from a friend of hers that she prized a cup she’d saved from Berlin. It had been a gift from Heinrich Himmler, the S.S.’s overseer of the Holocaust.
American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally is in theaters now
Graham Fuller is a film critic living in New York