08.16.09

Tarantino's Glorious Nazi

As a charismatic SS officer in Inglourious Basterds, little-known Austrian character actor Christoph Waltz steals the movie from Brad Pitt and is an early Oscar favorite. By Paul Cullum

As a charismatic SS officer in Inglourious Basterds, little-known Austrian character actor Christoph Waltz steals the movie from Brad Pitt and is an early Oscar favorite. 

“You can try it yourself, it’s a lot of fun: Use English words with Latin roots—and there are plenty—and make them sound like opera.”

That’s Austrian character actor Christoph Waltz, whose breakout role as the silky, sadistic SS Colonel Hans Landa (aka “The Jew Hunter”) in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Inglourious Basterds is the best thing—by an order of magnitude—about this WWII mashup of The Dirty Dozen and Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler. Although he speaks fluent German, French, and English throughout the movie, you would be hard-pressed to differentiate it from his pidgin Italian on display in one scene, with such gusto does he attack the role.

“I asked myself, ‘Do I want to run through the background yelling Heil, Hitler for the rest of my life?’”

“I live in a small country,” explains Waltz. “If I travel 500 miles, I crisscross through five languages.”

An actor with more than 100 credits in Europe but virtually unknown in this U.S., the 52-year-old Waltz has of late carved out a sinecure playing villains on German TV, a career path as lucrative as it has been unchallenging. Rather amazingly, given his facility with the language, he only has a handful of English-language credits—mostly European co-productions and TV epics like A&E’s Catherine the Great, TNT’s Jacob and Goldeneye: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming for U.K. TV ( not the later Bond film, as widely reported)—despite having divided his time for the past 20 years between Berlin and London, where he lives with his wife and three children.

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Perhaps as a consequence, his Col. Landa is a sacred monster on a par with Ralph Fiennes’ psychotic Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, any number of self-amused Bond villains and, most aptly, Anthony Hopkins’ indelible Hannibal Lecter. As with that performance, once again a classically trained actor becomes besotted with the dramatic possibilities of a limitless role, and winds up inhaling the scenery. In Waltz’ acceptance speech for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, he told Tarantino, “You gave me my vocation back.”

In person, Waltz is equally charming, but without the penumbra of menace that comes with having Nazi goons just outside the door. His voice carries some of the Bavarian lilt of Werner Herzog, and he looks slightly like Daniel Day-Lewis when he laughs. His thorough command of English dates to 1979-80, when he came to New York to pursue a post- Chorus Line career in musicals and wound up studying acting with Lee Strasberg and script interpretation with Stella Adler. (He cites Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Alan Arkin, and Al Pacino, whom he saw onstage in Mamet’s American Buffalo, as major influences.) It was also in New York that the legendary Paul Kohner, Billy Wilder’s agent (and grandfather of American Pie producer-directors Chris and Paul Weitz), who knew his grandfather from Vienna, told him, “I could do things for you here, but it won’t be enough to survive.”

“I asked myself, ‘Do I want to run through the background yelling Heil, Hitler for the rest of my life?’” says Waltz, who returned to Germany and the comfortable life of the journeyman actor. So the irony of finally inhabiting the Nazi villain that may break the mold is not lost on him—either as an actor or a part-time German resident.

“Well, there’s no business like Shoah business,” he says, addressing the wave of Hollywood Holocaust movies last year and their recent offshoot of revenge fantasies. ( Defiance, Valkyrie and now Inglourious Basterds). “I’m not really that comfortable with that. I’m interested in dealing with the topic, and not just satisfying our politically correct preoccupation, which actually hinders dealing with it. So when Quentin comes along—and of course, it needs to be Quentin… the sigh of relief is the biggest in Germany. We are educated on this topic to an infinitely higher degree than anywhere else—with good reason.

“If you look at original footage of Hitler—Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the party convention in ’34—that is a cartoon character. So of course, if an actor sticks a moustache on his face and does exactly what Hitler himself does, you end up with a cartoon. Obviously, that’s not really the right path to tread, unless you do it like Quentin, where you say, ‘We need a cartoon character.’ Our responsibility is to actually deal with it, and to responsibly contribute to the awareness of what happened, why it happened and guard that it never happens again—or something similar.”

With Inglourious Basterds, Waltz joins the pantheon of actors who have received career reprieves from the Tarantino canon—notably, John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, Michael Parks in From Dusk Till Dawn (from a Tarantino script) and the late David Carradine in Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2.

“I think in his writing, he doesn’t expose his actors to bad acting—to the necessity of bad acting,” says Waltz. “He creates these characters that play themselves. I always felt like a leopard being fed muesli, and all of a sudden, along comes Quentin Tarantino, and he doesn’t just throw me a steak, he puts a whole antelope in front of me—and the antelope’s still alive, so I get to hunt it down.”

ICM agent Adam Schweitzer read the script and called Waltz’s agent in Germany before any footage had even been shot, recognizing that whoever played this part had the potential to become a star. They are currently entertaining offers, and expect to make some decisions by next week. Meanwhile, almost against his better judgment, Waltz cautiously stares past the lure of the obvious, and into what looks like an increasingly glorious future.

“I’m an extremely skeptical person,” he says. “But the recognition is immense, and the interest is dazzling. Sometimes I get a bit dizzy.”

Paul Cullum is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, Variety, Details, Radar, Vanity Fair and hundreds of tiny magazines that pay comically little.