In Europe, everybody would say, “Well, they (in Hollywood) just want to squeeze you like a lemon.” Well, yeah! But, you know, if I have the juice, why shouldn’t they?
Of all actors to grace the awards-season stages within the last decade, few have burst into UK audiences’ collective consciousness from relative obscurity to “lemon”-like prolificity in such a striking way. After three decades of work in German and Austrian theatre and television, Christoph Waltz received his mainstream breakout role as one of Quentin Tarantino’s (and indeed cinema’s) most memorable villains, garnering 27 awards in the process. (And that’s just according to the Guardian; his IMDb page lists a good 62.)
This meteoric rise has been a tremendous place from which to start a prolific career as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand Euro-villains and supporting players; however, his two collaborations with Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained – have proven unmatchable career highlights. Indeed, he is the only actor to ever have won an Academy Award for a performance in a Tarantino film – the fact that Waltz’s two Oscars are for his only two Tarantino roles is even more striking. The performances, though, are unquestionably worthy of the recognition. With Alexander Payne’s Downsizing in UK cinemas this week, it is time to look at the last decade of this incredibly versatile actor’s work.
Before his introduction to mainstream audiences, Waltz’s largest foray into English-speaking acting was in the 1990 British television drama The Gravy Train. In 2008, however, Quentin Tarantino was on the lookout for an actor to take on his newest villain – a multilingual, merciless Nazi officer who charms and bullies his way to his own ends – whom he feared was unplayable. Then, Waltz auditioned – just hours before Tarantino, who had been writing Basterds for around a decade, shelved the project for good. In a 2009 piece in Variety, Tarantino made the following characteristically opinionated utterance:
I don’t want to make this movie if I can’t find the perfect Landa, I’d rather just publish the script than make a movie where this character would be less than he was on the page. When Christoph came in and read for the part, he gave me my movie back.
The praise was mutual: Waltz revelled in Tarantino’s “poetry“.
Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s second-highest grossing film to date, garnering eight Academy Award nominations on the side. The pulpy revisionist historical thriller was gifted an instantly legendary villain in the form of Waltz’s Standartenführer Hans Landa, the “Jew Hunter”. His first appearance in the simmering opening scene – a masterclass in pacing and dialogue in itself – immediately establishes Waltz’s skill in commanding a scene, manipulating characters and audience alike.
Waltz states that Landa “is realistic to the point where it is bordering the inhuman,” eagerly espousing Nazi ideology until it no longer suits his needs. His intelligence, ruthlessness, and calculated vacillation between charm and terror usually put him several steps ahead of his adversaries and cement him as one of cinema’s most mesmerising villains. It is a joy to watch, and an introduction to mainstream audiences most actors can only dream of.
Three years later, Waltz was back on the Academy Awards stage accepting another Best Supporting Actor statuette. Django Unchained – Tarantino’s highest-grossing film – was also multi Oscar-nominated. While Landa was the heart of evil, Dr King Schultz is his film’s moral compass (despite his gun-slinging skills). Waltz completely sells this German-Texan dentist-turned-bounty-hunter whose chance encounter with Django begins a mission to find and free the ex-slave’s wife. The “poetry” and charisma that Waltz found in Landa is present in Schultz, but with a more altruistic (if no less ruthless) mindset behind it – the contrast between his genteel manners and his lack of qualms with explosives is perfectly judged. Schultz might be the less striking of Waltz’s two Tarantino characters, but the actor’s masterful performances maximise the dynamism of both.
Between these two Oscar-winning turns, Waltz appeared in central roles in Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet, Francis Lawrence’s Water for Elephants, Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers, and Roman Polanski’s Carnage (all 2011). With the exception of Carnage (despite its directorial connections) and Waltz’s “astonishing” performance within it, none are memorable. Not even Waltz as Cardinal Richelieu – dream casting – can save the Dumas adaptation. Waltz’s performance in Water for Elephants was acclaimed, though directorial insistence on showing the circus master’s lovable side prevented Waltz from giving us another gloriously psychopathic turn.
Waltz’s skills were better served in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (2014). The film’s central performances are as fascinating as Margaret Keane’s own artwork – Waltz in particular enthrals as Keane’s dishonest, smooth husband – but the film lacks the necessary depth to make a lasting impact. Waltz’s 2014 screen appearances are completed by his all-too-brief cameo (as himself) in Muppets Most Wanted and a turn as the newest Horrible Boss in that franchise followup.
Joining the legendary James Bond franchise, Waltz – despite early statements to the contrary – took on the iconic villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Sam Mendes’ Spectre (2015). While the film is as technically impressive and expansive as any in the Craig era, it is let down by its overly complicated plot and its anticlimactic retrospective choice to make the Spectre organisation the mastermind behind the last few films’ baddies. Blofeld, unfortunately, is one of the casualties of these creative choices; his motivations are thin and his actions border on ridiculous. While Waltz clearly has a grand time as the iconic criminal mastermind and convinces with his natural suavity and intelligence, he cannot save the central conceit.
2016 saw Waltz appear as a sociopathic colonialist baddie in The Legend of Tarzan – a poorly-plotted, clunky live-action treatment – and 2017 added Tulip Fever to his roster. Despite a strong cast, this film – stuck in production limbo since 2014 – fell flat critically and commercially due to the stunted dialogue and excessively complicated plot.
Comparing Waltz’s Oscar-winning roles to this eclectic roster, it is disappointing that Waltz has not found the same success outside of Tarantino’s iconic movies. The fact that he garners strong reviews across his works, for the charismatic dynamism he brings to the screen, is a strong indication of his considerable acting skill, but it seems to get lost in works that do not give him the towering, mercurial roles he can command with ease. This could be due to directors pigeonholing Waltz into dastardly portrayals that have little motivation outside of their villainy – Waltz performs these parts extraordinarily well, but his captivating style is somewhat wasted without an almost larger-than-life human complexity behind his figures. Perhaps, however, the exact opposite scenario holds true – Waltz stated in 2009 that Tarantino’s way of working with actors is uniquely successful:
I’ve tried to analyse why actors are often better in Quentin’s films than in other films, and I think it’s because he doesn’t expose them to the necessity of bad acting… He doesn’t specify the intended effect or ask you to show motivations. And he makes it easy for you to be on the character’s side.
Perhaps this freedom and lack of agenda is where Waltz flourishes. Regardless, one is almost always in for a treat with Waltz’s magnetism and acting talents, and therefore his name in the credits is never to be dismissed.
Outside his film work, Waltz is thankfully quite distinguishable from Landa and Blofeld, as proven by his incredibly gracious Oscars acceptance speeches. However, he is intensely private, meaning that our best insight into the man comes from film-centric speeches and interviews. This, combined with his eloquence and fluency in German, French, and English – to the point that he performed his Inglourious Basterds role in the French and German dubbings as well – would make him the ideal international supervillain. However, considering his thoughts on the American election and Brexit, he appears his principles are unwavering.
Waltz’s latest screen appearance is in Downsizing, currently in cinemas. Critical reactions indicate that the film’s premise has promise, but its execution stumbles – this could be a continuation of a trend of Waltz’s somewhat uninspired performances outside of his films with Tarantino. However, with more promising reviews on the festival circuit, it may prove an exception and finally be a showcase worthy of his talents. Regardless, it is almost certain to be an engaging performance; Waltz is cast as an ageing amoral playboy – a role he attacks with zeal. It will be exciting to see where this immensely skilled, captivating, and eloquent actor goes next – if it is back to a collaboration with Tarantino, all the better.