January 2012: The Alien Years (Three Part Mini-Series)
Are you familiar with Australian history during the turn of the 20th century and First World War?
It may come to a shock to some of you that Australia had a large German immigrant community around this time. Even more shocking, the Australian government in collusion with the native Australian merchants seeking to remove competition arranged giant internment camps to hold all German immigrants and people who had been naturalized of German descent when war broke out in Europe. The excuse was to stop Germans from helping the German war effort, but the reality is that thousands of men were taken from their jobs, homes and families and put into concentration camps on Allied (British Empire) soil.
It is this backdrop of prejudice, political and economic strife, and class struggle that The Alien Years takes place. Originally filmed as a three part miniseries, shown in Australia and Sweden (and possibly Germany), this bittersweet melodrama stars a very young Christoph Waltz as Stefan Mueller, the romantic hero of the story. Passionately in love with an Australian girl he meets while en route to start a new life in Australia, the strength of their romance sees them through the objections of her parents and the utter poverty of the German farming community. Prejudice and suspicion abound, not only among the Australians, but among the Germans who have retained their traditions and shun the outsider amongst them. The couple manage to survive on the strength of their love, but have to pay the highest price for it.
Sweetly, tenderly acted by Christoph Waltz, Stefan Mueller is a man who you cannot help but love. The earnest, sweet, unassuming quality of his character in the face of so much external, unwarranted hatred is perhaps the strength of his performance. He retains his goodness until the very end, with no motivation but to be with his beloved. However, on parts of the film that required a ferocity or anger from Stefan, Waltz did not deliver to the extent of his capabilities. Stefan, even at his most unjustly persecuted, is nearly impassive in his objections, retaining his composure despite the horrific abuses and circumstances. Towards the end of the film it feels as if the police are kicking a puppy instead of a man who was considered a criminal in the eyes of the state. While I understand it has always been a trope to portray concentration camp internees as docile, the internment in Australia was not the same as the Jewish internment in World War Two and could have been met with more resistance from Stefan than was portrayed by Waltz’s performance, which would have taken the character into the realm of realism and not as much of a fantasy portrayal of the perfect even-tempered man. In this respect, Stefan comes across as very one-note.
Among Waltz’s back catalog, certainly this film is unique in that he portrays a romantic figure. It is refreshing to see him acting passionate and in love. Certainly, this will become a favorite of the fans once it is better known in the community for many reasons. Is it his best work? No. But, I most certainly did cry at the end for at least 20 minutes so in that aspect, his performance succeeded in moving me to care for Stefan. Bring kleenex and be prepared to fall in love.