In any language, Christoph Waltz has made the most of being a 'Basterd'


BERLIN -- Christoph Waltz, star of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," is gazing out at Rosa Luxembourg Platz in East Berlin. His eyes pass over the buildings surrounding the historic square -- architecture from the city's legendary Bauhaus school -- and settle uncomfortably on the Volksbuhne. The view of East Berlin's premier theater is blocked by a construction site, a wooden wall bearing the inexplicable slogan WHO LET THE DOGS OUT? in bold, white letters. Waltz shakes his head.

"People come here, right here, from all over the world to see these buildings," he says. "And people here just pass them by; they don't even know they are here." He pauses, then adds, "Berlin, for me, is the capital of missed opportunities."

Waltz knows a lot about those. The actor had been puttering around the German television industry for decades before his film-stealing role as "Basterds' " Jew-hunting Nazi Col. Hans Landa made him an unlikely overnight sensation.

Critics have been divided over Tarantino's take on the World War II men-on-a-mission movie but were universally wowed by Waltz's polyglot performance, which sees him shift effortlessly from English to French to German to Italian, often in the same scene.

Brad Pitt called him "an inspiration." The Cannes jury gave him the best actor prize. ICM signed him for U.S. representation. And there's already talk of a nom for next year's Oscars.

This for a workaday actor best known here for playing the baddie in mostly second-rate German crime and cop shows.

"When I won in Cannes, I thanked Quentin for giving me back my vocation, and I meant it," Waltz says. "German cop shows are not really what I became an actor for. I had made a lot of compromises over the years, and I had started to doubt myself, to doubt the meaning of what I was doing. I was still happy about the job, but it was no longer a calling. The work with Quentin, it reminded me of why I wanted to be an actor."

Reviving the careers of forgotten stars has become a Tarantino trademark -- think of John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction," Pam Grier in "Jackie Brown" and David Carradine in the "Kill Bill" films. But even in this lineup, Waltz stands out: Tarantino didn't so much revive his career as reinvent it.

Til Schweiger and Daniel Bruehl, two of Waltz's German co-stars in "Basterds," are households names in Germany; Waltz remains an insider's tip. Despite steady work and a few acting awards, he never truly "made it."

Waltz learned his craft at Vienna's Max-Reinhardt school in the 1970s before moving to New York to study at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Ironically, given his breakout role in "Basterds," he was discouraged from trying for a U.S. career by an agent who warned him that, as an Austrian, he would spend the rest of his life playing Nazis in war movies.

"In fact, I never played a Nazi until 'Basterds,' " he says. "I'd been offered Nazi roles before, but I never wanted to do them because I don't like to play cliched roles. I don't care what uniform a character wears, but if the role is just that Nazi beast, serving the cliche out of lack of fantasy, why would I want to do that?"

Even when he received the script for "Basterds," Waltz admits he had reservations.

"After my very first reading, I thought they have lost their minds because how can you make a movie like that?" he says. "And then my German agent said, 'Yes, yes, I know. But read it again and imagine that it is a Tarantino movie.' So I went out and bought a box (set) with all of them and watched them again. And when I did, I understood something that had escaped my attention -- that Quentin's movies aren't just entertainment. They are pieces of art. They use film to its full potential as a medium. With these things in mind, I read the script again. And this time, I was jubilant."

Col. Landa certainly isn't your typical movie Nazi. Cold-blooded certainly, but also eloquent and charming, especially alongside Pitt's trash-talking, scalp-taking Lt. Aldo Raine.

Almost every critic has mentioned Waltz's dazzling language skills; the Cannes audience in particular was won over by his beautiful French. In person, Waltz downplays his linguistic talent. When he drops a German or French word into conversation, it's not to show off -- it's to be precise. There are things, you see, that can't be translated.

"I was fascinated by the languages in the movie, but not in and of themselves," Waltz says. "Why does Landa speak so many languages, and why does he switch from one language to another at this specific moment? That's interesting. He shows the performative aspect of language -- how language creates a world. Someone told me that, for him, 'Basterds' is actually a film about language. It's a film about what language can do and a film about what cinema can do."

For Waltz, "Basterds," which blatantly rewrites World War II history, also is an answer, of sorts, to the wave of historically realistic Nazi-era films -- many of them German -- of the past few years.

"To me, it is a desperately desired relief from that," he says. "I don't like those 'realistic' movies because I don't like the claim that this is the truth. I don't like the claim that this is history, and I don't like the claim that this is how it was. You don't see 'Downfall' for history, do you, just because it looks like history? You can see that isn't Hitler, yet you take it for Hitler. Now how can you claim that is more real or closer to history that what Quentin does?"

Waltz emerges from the cafe across from the Volksbuhne and stares up at buildings framing the square.

"It's like these Bauhaus buildings, they are art -- they show us an alternative, a possibility of how to live. That's why it's a shame: After the wall came down, Berlin had the opportunity to start anew."

Berlin might have missed its opportunity, but with "Basterds," Waltz has been given a chance to reinvent himself. And he intends to seize it.