Monday, February 01, 2010
Time to Revise Your Hot Villains List: Christoph Waltz
Those of us who keep track of the hottest villains in cinematic history have had to bump a new member to the head of the class: Christoph Waltz, who appears in Quentin Tarantino’s latest gem, “Inglourious Basterds.” The Austrian actor portrays Hans Landa, the Nazi officer known as “the Jew Hunter,” and his performance has garnered some two-dozen-plus acting award nominations and a growing list of wins.
(It’s always nice when I crush on someone age-appropriate.)
This character makes Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates seem sane, and Malcolm MacDowell’s Caligula look nice. In case you haven’t seen the film yet, I won’t ruin any of the surprises...but suffice it to say, he commits all kinds of traditional Nazi acts of despicable vileness. The thing that sets Hans Landa apart is not so much what he does as how he does it.
Like the most well-bred of princes, he wields gestures both charming and graceful, all the while maintaining an air of menace so overpowering that you pray to just get it over with (whatever horror “it” will prove to be). Does his smile seem bright and congenial? Give it a second and it will wax demented and terrifying. And if you’re entertaining the hope that you might outsmart him, forget it—he’s three steps ahead and is simply toying with you.
In rereading that paragraph, I find that it could just as easily describe a number of characters that have come before Hans Landa. The charming but lethal Nazi is, after all, a cinematic cliché. I’m afraid words just can’t do justice to this particular performance, to this character who is equal parts fascinating and horrifying, and both at the same time. Mad props to Tarantino for writing him—and as I writer I recognize that element of the brilliance—but as Q.T. himself has said, it is Waltz who raises Landa to a triumphant level.
I think perhaps it is because Hans Landa is so utterly convinced of his own righteousness and even benevolence that he comes across not as an evil fellow who can feign charm, but rather a man whose graciousness is actually—somehow!—sincere. He seems to think he is utterly right, perfectly congenial, amusing, amiable, even while he inflicts unspeakable brutality on his fellow man. He is, in short, completely mad; and even after you embrace this truth about him, the depth and quality of his insanity will stun you again and again.
As will the fact that Hans is, somehow, likeable.
Not that a guy like this can evoke any true emotions but hate and fear...but he is endlessly entertaining to watch, from his employment of perfect English and French along with the German (it’s awesome that all the characters speak the languages they are supposed to), to his chess-player-style cool logic.
Why is it always so amusing to be attracted to characters who make your skin crawl? Just one of those quirks of the human race, I guess. I’m sure the last thing on Christoph Waltz’s agenda in executing this incredible performance was to be sexy, but I’m afraid like countless well-portrayed villains before him, he definitely is.
Next up, Waltz will be appearing as Sigmund Freud in “The Talking Cure,” scheduled for a 2011 release. I’m so glad he has finally broken into American film and only wish I’d discovered him before now. In the meantime, he’ll be raking in more deserved awards for his role as Hans, the least of which is his inclusion on my list of favorite film villains of all time.