It takes only the first scene in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II film “Inglourious Basterds” to convince audiences that they’re watching the birth of a star.
In the opening moments of Tarantino’s bloody, over-the-top “Jewish revenge fantasy” (it opens Friday), a French farmer is visited by Col. Hans Landa of the SS.
Brilliantly portrayed by veteran Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, Landa politely invites himself into the nervous farmer’s home and begins a conversation that is outwardly friendly but sprinkled with menace.
Landa asks for a glass of fresh milk. He encourages the farmer to light up a pipe with him.
As the conversation shifts from French to English, Landa talks about his reputation as “the Jew Hunter.” It’s all about the chase, he says, not a hatred of Jews. In fact, when Landa compares Jews to rats, it’s meant as a compliment. Rats are smart, resourceful creatures who thrive despite our best efforts to exterminate them.
What motivates him, the chatty Landa tells the squirming farmer, is the challenge. He considers himself a great detective solving complex mysteries.
Now, about those Jewish families who used to live in this valley before the war ... the officials cannot account for one clan. Would the farmer have any information that might be of use?
Could he possibly point out where they’re hiding ?
For almost 20 minutes, Tarantino gives us two men talking. But thanks to the 52-year-old Waltz’s confident, creepy Landa, it plays almost like an action scene as the German wears down the resolve of his captive audience.
“The scene is like a battle,” Waltz said in a recent phone conversation from New York. “There are advances and retreats, feints and furious attacks.
“The challenge was to really find the redeeming qualities in this person. Landa is quite the fascinating character—so smart, so well-versed and educated ... so relentlessly evil.”
Evil or not, Hans Landa is the most memorable character seen in any movie this summer, and that includes Meryl Streep’s Julia Child.
So completely does Waltz dominate his scenes that at May’s Cannes Film Festival he walked off with the best actor prize.
“Waltz stands head and shoulders above the rest (of the cast) with a lusty performance in the juiciest role,” crowed Variety.
The Times of London went gaga for Waltz’s “fabulously silky menace.”
The ostensible star of “Inglourious Basterds” is Brad Pitt, who plays an American officer whose unit of Jewish commandos operates behind enemy lines, scalping Nazis and spreading terror.
But in fact Waltz gets more screen time than the fabulous hunk.
Not bad for an actor who has spent most of his career on stage or TV screens in Germany. The only time English-speaking audiences might have seen him was a small role in “Goldeneye,” a made-for-TV film biography of 007 creator Ian Fleming.
Waltz, who in the 1970s lived in New York City and studied at the Actors Studio (“I expected it to be great ... and it wasn’t”) and under Stella Adler (” the formative experience in my acting life”), says he was recommended to Tarantino by a Berlin casting agent.
As soon as he read the “Basterds” script he knew he was on to something special.
“It was all on the page,” Waltz said. “Every little detail. The beats, the timing. Quentin had set it all up for me. Once you got into the rhythm, it was like surfing.
“Where I had my fun was to devote two months to Landa’s scenes, to see what’s hidden there, what lies underneath.”
What he discovered, Waltz said, was a character who easily could have come on as a thug but chose to be sociable, erudite and attractive — qualities that only make Landa more unsettling.
Tarantino insisted that his international cast undergo a period of rehearsals. Waltz was in his element.
“I’ve done so much theater ... and this is where all that came in handy,” he said. “Films tend to break up scenes, but Quentin insisted that we rehearse and play them in real time. Without all that stop and start, you really get the opportunity to play, to really get things going, to establish the rhythm.
“But I don’t know if I could have done it if I’d not been in the theater for so many years,” he said.
Most of his rehearsal time was devoted to the farmhouse scene, Waltz recalled.
“For other scenes, not so much,” he said. “Quentin didn’t want to establish a form of security. He didn’t want us too comfortable. He wanted to keep everyone on our toes.
“So after that opening scene, we talked and rehearsed a bit, but not too much. He wanted us to surprise him.”
A longtime resident of London, Waltz is fluent in German, French and English. But he’s modest about it: “Where I come from, that’s nothing to write home about.”
Suddenly a hot property with casting agents around the world, Waltz is in negotiations to take over the lead role in “Tatort,” a long-running hit on German public television not unlike “Law & Order” in the United States.