The following introduction and interview contain moderate spoilers.
When a new film from Quentin Tarantino is released, a film as original and awash in genre-geometry as Inglourious Basterds, the post-viewing sensation that follows remains difficult to describe. In Kill Bill Vol. 1, there is a scene set inside the House of Blue Leaves in which Uma Thurman’s Bride blinks and the film switches from black and white to color. A sizable light switch is then thrown by a yakuza. In seconds, the screen turns a cool midnight blue. At that moment the aural equivalent of digital goosebumps chimes unusually through the speakers. Now everything on screen appears the same but is different, renergized and alive. I remember watching this scene and realizing that it inexplicably captures how I feel after a QT film; the difference being that the sensation of a QT film is not flicked instantaneously; it spreads over the following weeks and months as if by a potent time-release capsule. In addition, as this sensation is occuring at a personal level, Tarantino’s characters and images are similarly infiltrating and titillating the collective mind of endless media, fellow cinephiles, and general moviegoers. Pop-culture synapses connect further until a single Tarantino character is loaded into the permanent highlight reel of a respective year, for film or otherwise. It’s the lysergic, symbiotic propaganda of a true genius.
In this way, Inglourious Basterds is no different from Tarantino’s superlative works: the character that will be remembered in bold fashion is Colonel Hans Landa aka The Jew Hunter, the primary villain in Basterds. Moreover, international viewers, and American viewers especially, will come to remember their surprise introduction to the masterful talent embodying Landa, the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz. His career spanning some 30 years, primarily in theatre and television, Waltz’s performance as the erudite, calculating, and predatory Nazi colonel—a fictional Tarantino creation—is all but guaranteed a Best Supporting Actor nomination. This /Film staffer predicts “a bingo.” If a timely parallel need be drawn to exemplify the breakout performance by this veteran actor—a role that plants the seeds for a long, prosperous career—it would be that of Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children. During his whirlwind of publicity, Quentin Tarantino, doting even for Tarantino, has praised Waltz and his character with the following…
“You gave me my movie.” – to Waltz at the Cannes Film Festival, where he won Best Actor
“Hans Landa is one of the greatest characters I have ever written, and one of the greatest characters that I will ever write.”
Seeking out comparisons for Waltz’s Hans Landa within the lineage of great cinematic villains and characters is a more lengthy task. Landa the Jew Hunter exhibits similar larger-than-life cunning and the European sensibility of a top-tier Bond villain. He even possesses a few quirky accessories: an oversized calabash is an unsubtle metaphor for masculinity; his fondness for milk seems both leftover from an age of innocence and a primal link. Comparisons to Sherlock Holmes—of which Waltz himself has made—extend beyond the calabash to Landa’s meticulous, quasi-theatrical detective work in his hunt for Jews and traitors.
Another key to Landa’s allure is a polite yet simmering disdain for the intelligence and inferiority of those around him. This is but one detail that Landa shares with another timeless cinematic villain: Hans Gruber in Die Hard. These two alpha evildoers also display a suave command of linguistics, dress impeccably, and share the same first name and German backgrounds. Unlike Gruber, however—and as several critics have noted in unrelated reviews—Landa does not receive an equal adversary or a match-of-wits within his respective film. In Landa’s few encounters with the Basterds, one can easily observe, and nearly empathize with, Landa’s disappointment once he discovers that not only do the Basterds underestimate him, they have never and will never consider him as a fully-formed opponent. It is possibly this aspect, as perfectly executed by Waltz, that makes Landa such a fiery, if not tragic, personality. It is also this aspect that largely and ironically defines his fate by the end of the film.
In the interview that follows, Christoph Waltz elaborates on the inner-processes of Col. Hans Landa. During the actor’s press rounds in the days leading up to and shortly after release, Waltz’s answers have been incredibly humbled and, on occasion, mildly snappy. His interview with /Film was no exception.
Hunter Stephenson: Good morning, Christoph. You just finished up on The Today Show. Have a little TV buzz?
Christoph Waltz: Hi. Good morning. [laughs] Yeah, yeah. Right. Exactly. No, you can say I am sort of over my TV buzz, so…
Congrats on the role. I believe that Landa ranks with some of the great villains in cinema…
Christoph Waltz: Thank you very much.
Landa is very passive-aggressive when it comes to dealing with people, and often very violent. But my favorite scene is the one where you attack a strudel. You go after that dish with such flourish and violence. What are your thoughts on that scene and what is being expressed in it?
Christoph Waltz: [laughs] Well, Landa’s energy has to go somewhere. But you are right. In a way it’s a sublimation of aggression. Maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t look at it that way. I really thought, “The scene is there,” and I take what is there. I didn’t really try to put my own two-cents worth in. You know, Quentin‘s script is on such a level that you should be busy trying to figure out how to eat it, not try to figure out what, you know, what you can layer on top of it. You know, with all of the scenes, I wasn’t doing any of the method or any semi-esoteric acting. I was doing script study. It was really “at the desk,” so to say.
Right. In the script, what do you feel Landa is communicating non-verbally to Shosanna as they eat their strudels? He seems to be savoring the moment, or maybe it’s pure…
Christoph Waltz: Well, it’s not so pure. It’s not so pure. You see, it’s very, very important that I hold back on my explanation, my interpretations, verbalizations and descriptions of what I do. It’s very important for, let’s call it, the “interior process.” To arrive at something that translates into an action, that’s what an actor does. Yet, I do not want to impede on any of your interpretations as a writer. This is what I do. I do it. And then you look at it. And you come up with a result. I am just, let’s say, the intermediary, between Quentin and you.
[laughs] A middle man. Okay. Gotcha. In my interview with Eli Roth, he was very enthusiastic and commendable of your performance. And he emphasized that yours was a role that every A-list actor in Hollywood wanted to audition for. And he discussed why you were the best choice, especially for American audiences, and maybe because many Americans are not as familiar with your work. So, when you are introduced on screen, you’re like a blank slate. Do you feel that makes your performance more effective?
Christoph Waltz: First, I am extremely flattered by what Eli said. Extremely flattered. I think what Quentin was after from the very beginning, you know, he wanted a certain degree of authenticity. That was his plan from the beginning, to have American actors play the American parts, French actors play the French, and Germans play the Germans. And in this case, since it was written that way, I feel it was the right thing to do. And I am a lucky guy. I was the lucky guy on the end of all of that—that whole process—you know. And of course, I think about what you said, but I really question it. I was the one to do it. And I got busy right away. You know, as soon as I learned that I was the one, I got ready. I put everything in. I dug up everything there was.
And from what I understand, you didn’t have prior correspondence with Tarantino. You auditioned for him and [longtime producer] Lawrence Bender was there as well. It was simply an open audition process, is that correct?
Christoph Waltz: Yeah, yeah. It was an open audition, more or less. I mean, the German casting director got a few actors together for Quentin to meet. And, um, well actually many people because there are so many roles in this film. Now, I really didn’t think that they were casting this part when I read it, you know. I just thought they were using that part [of Colonel Hans Landa] for material for the auditions. Because many of the other parts are not big enough to audition properly.
Before you joined the production, what was your favorite film by Tarantino?
Christoph Waltz: Jackie Brown! [laughs] Jackie Brown. That was always my favorite. And it’s one of my favorite movies of all. What I like about it, well, all of Quentin‘s extraordinary talents are more condensed, more distilled, and more focused, all of that is present in this one, I find. All of his immense qualities and ingenious talents as a filmmaker and as an author are in a quintessential form in that film, I find. And I love that.
That’s an interesting choice, because Jackie Brown is based on a book [Rum Punch] by Elmore Leonard. And Eli Roth, he drew a comparison between Inglourious Basterds, other famous authors, and literature…
Christoph Waltz: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, I really studied Quentin‘s movies before we started filming, I rewatched all of Quentin‘s movies again. I really did. And that’s not me trying to be clever. [I laugh and say, "No, I believe you."] Yeah. I really did understand myself to be an intermediary between Quentin and the audience as I said. And I cannot possibly find out about the audience because it’s too big, and Quentin is so popular all over the world, you know. But there is so much material to study in his movies. And it made a lot of sense that this film—well, this script rather at the point—was a continuation of Quentin‘s universe, so to say.
I’d like to ask you, because you have many years spent in the theatre. And Eli says that actors will be performing scenes from Quentin’s script on the stage for years to come. [Ed. note: 100 years by Roth's precise calculation. Ha.] And in particular, he mentioned your scene, your introduction at the start, in the French farmhouse. Do you see Inglourious Basterds translating to the stage?
Christoph Waltz: Absolutely! I do think that is possible. Yes. Not the whole film, however. There is so much happening that is very, very, exclusively for film, it’s filmic, that it would really be…it would be violating the movie. But the first scene, by all means. And many of the individual scenes could very well be put on the stage. The first scene is essentially a one act play, and it’s not very short as such. I would not be surprised if the first scene is played on stages in the future.
Would you be interested in reprising the character if Tarantino was interested in taking these characters to the stage? Or if he gave his blessing? I feel like he’s venturing into different mediums, and this might be a possibility for some reason…
Christoph Waltz: Would I? No, no, no. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I have contributed to this whole thing as much as I possibly could. And I will have to let go of that. I will not harp on it. I will not cling to it. I would be very interested to see [scenes performed on the stage]. But definitely not to play it.
Have you ever played a villain of this caliber and intensity throughout your career?
Christoph Waltz: No, no, no. I once got close. But unfortunately it didn’t happen, you know. I once was about to play Richard the Third, but the production didn’t happen. But Richard the Third would be sort of a…it would be similar territory, I feel.
One thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot after seeing the film is what effect the script being leaked online had. And not just the effect on me personally. I can’t recall a script generating so much interest, whether it was leaked purposely or not, and being read by so many general audience members. I feel like so many people had read the script before seeing the movie, and this is the first film where I feel that’s happened. [Christoph says, "Yeah, yeah. Definitely."] And, you know, Eli Roth, he thought that the leak was negative overall. But I feel like Tarantino, he planned it to be this way. I love that the movie’s title on screen, that is his handwriting. [Christoph says, "Yeah!"] It’s the first page of the script. And I think this is unprecedented, because it creates a new, all-encompassing experience. What do you think about this?
Christoph Waltz: It’s so interesting that you mention this. It is, really. Because that was my very first thought about this whole thing. When I first read the script, my first thought was, “It’s in his handwriting.” And the spelling is, let’s say, quite unorthodox. [laughs] [laughs] And, so, I had the feeling, a hint, that this is something that is very personal, you know. So, I had the feeling to enter into a personal relationship with the author. And the author being Quentin, and knowing Quentin‘s movies up to that point, I felt like I was being drawn into this whole “Quentin World.” That was quite interesting. I noticed this from the start. And it’s very interesting that you bring this up with the audience. I have thought about this a great deal. It’s great that you mention this. Absolutely. That was my first impression. And probably one of the crucial and pivotal thoughts that I had about it: This script and the film really have something to do with this person. And I needed to find my way into his way…into his way of thinking.
As an audience member, it does create a very personal connection. Seeing his handwriting at the start, it makes the creative process seem very transparent. And I feel it’s an amazing experience in that way.
Christoph Waltz: Absolutely right. I agree. It makes for a unique and fantastic experience. And Quentin knows exactly what he’s doing, but he’s not scheming, you know. He doesn’t develop his procedure from a strategy. He’s very spontaneous and visceral. He’s very direct and he certainly knows what he is doing. But he has the impulse first, and then, I think, he understands what it could mean.
When you first heard Brad Pitt’s accent for [Aldo] Raine, what do you think? Your characters, their encounter at the end, it’s a very strange relationship. His accent seems incredibly risky to me, but I think it works in the end. Your opinion?
Christoph Waltz: Well, I read the words on the script, and in a way, when I heard Brad Pitt speak like that, it was 100% congruent with the words. Right now, I can’t separate one from the other. Even when I go back to the written word, I hear Brad say it. So, apparently, that is how it was written. And when we worked together, I learned something from Brad, something that I really admire in him, how generous he is. And I really learned how generosity on a set, how it can actually change…how generosity has an influence on everyone who is there and working on the film. Everyone who is around him. And he has a professional calmness and he’s just such a cool guy. He’s not impersonal, and he’s immensely generous. And this generosity allowed me to rise to the occasion, I feel.
While filming, was it an odd experience to be around so many swastikas and so much imagery associated with years of hatred?
Christoph Waltz: As Christoph, you see, I understand that it’s a movie set. But as Landa, I don’t think these swastikas are so important to him. It’s not so much ego-driven, it’s just a very thorough understanding of how the world works. What makes him so intriguing is exactly that; he’s not driven by an ideology. When people say “Nazi,” it’s such a gross generalization, I feel. And sometimes I feel compelled to say, “Well, he’s not even a Nazi.” Yes, he wears that uniform, but he doesn’t care. Not about Nazi ideology. He’s completely unideological. He just understands how the world turns, and in that way, he’s three steps ahead of everyone else.
(Spoiler Alert) Yeah. Until the end, when he faces the Basterds, who are extremely ideological. And he severely underestimates them. At the end, Landa is convinced he can cut this insane deal; he wants to be, like, the Richard Branson of Germany and have his own island. [laughs] And even in the script, I wondered if this was a realistic decision for his character, because Landa’s intelligence is…he’s a genius.
Christoph Waltz: Realistic. You see, he is realistic except for that one thing that comes back to happen to him at the end. But other than that, he is realistic to the point where it is bordering the inhuman, you know. He really looks at the various layers of reality, and he understands that there is not just one thing, the world is many things at the same time. And they might appear to contradict each other, but that does not mean that they necessarily do. And it’s a very interesting subject for conversation and discussion, and that’s naturally the ideal outcome of something like this.
There has been some discussion amongst Tarantino and Eli Roth in the press about a prequel. And I wonder if that is something you have spoken to Tarantino about or would consider?
Christoph Waltz: Never. Never once. Never once did we talk about it. He once mentioned at the very beginning, even before we started shooting, Quentin said that he imagined a sequel, but the sequel would not be a film but a novel. And I really like that idea.
That would be interesting. For people who become fans of your work in America, are there any films you have contributed to that should be sought out? Obviously, a lot of people are blown away by this performance and would like to see your past work…
Christoph Waltz: Yeah, yeah. I don’t even know what’s available here. I have no idea. There is some stuff available over there, but it has different region codes. You know, I was in a few films, but they were never very important. I did a few…you know. Some of them even played here, but I had very small parts in them. And I have done a lot of television and a lot of stage.
Obviously, that’s going to change. [laughs] I’m sure you’re getting plenty of Hollywood offers…
Christoph Waltz: It’s already happening, but I cannot discuss who. Let me tell you: it’s wild. It really is. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It really is sort of overwhelming right now, what is happening at the moment. I would say “Wow!” is the word. [laughs] “Wow.” It really is.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila[at]gmail.com and on twitter.