Christoph Waltz's 10 best film performances
(Credit: Philipp von Ostau)

From Roman Polanski to Quentin Tarantino: Christoph Waltz’s 10 best film performances

There is no such thing as pure art. It’s a bourgeois conceit.” – Christoph Waltz

Austrian actor Christoph Waltz had been studying acting since the 1970s and he started working in television since the ’80s but his breakthrough role came in Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. He won an Academy Award, BAFTA Award, and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance and went on to win the same awards for Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained. In 2020, he earned his first Primetime Emmy nomination for his work in the recent web series Most Dangerous Mind.

“It would be completely laughable if I claimed I was always motivated by the pure craft of acting and that recognition doesn’t play a part,” Waltz said. “Of course it does – that’s human nature. The bohemian artist who exists only for his art, it’s a myth. OK, it might have been true for Giacometti, but it certainly wasn’t for Picasso or Mozart. There is no such thing as pure art. It’s a bourgeois conceit.”

He added, “I think success has made me more understanding,” he says. “I mean, I’m just as intolerant as I was before, but I am infinitely more understanding. Because there are so many good actors who would love to work on good projects and apply their considerable talents to a great text. And yet they have to make a living. They have to exist in some form of dignity, if possible – and maybe it isn’t even possible. And my God, I’ve been there.

“I’ve done so many jobs because I’ve had to, not because I’ve wanted to. And it’s honourable to do a job because you need to feed your children, and maybe there is also something in it for your development as an actor. But only up to a point. Frustration can get the better of anyone. And I dread to imagine what would have happened to me had it not been for Quentin.”

On his 64th birthday, we revisit some of Christoph Waltz’s best film performances as a celebration of his illustrious career.

Christoph Waltz’s 10 best films:

10. The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry – 2011)

Based on the masked crime-fighting superhero created in 1936 by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker, this 2011 film adaptation features Seth Rogen in the title role. Christoph Waltz puts in a strong performance as the primary antagonist, underworld gangster Benjamin Chudnofsky.

When asked to describe his character, Waltz said, “Well, I am hesitant to say the least.  Loathe to be precise…explaining my characters.  Because, you know, most of it happens when you watch it. 

“It’s not done when I do it.  It’s done when you see it.  And when you see it again, you discover it wasn’t done the first time.  So I hate to give instructions how to view what I do.”

9. The Three Musketeers (Paul W. S. Anderson – 2011)

Paul W. S. Anderson’s 2011 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s beloved 1844 work is probably one of the less memorable ones but it has some interesting experimentations, including its use of clock-punk elements. Christoph Waltz is featured in a familiar antagonistic role, as the sinister Cardinal Richelieu.

“I loved it from when I was a kid,” Anderson said. “Every generation gets its Three Musketeers because the move [adaptations] date but the themes of the book never date: love, honour, courage, friendship.”

8. Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez – 2019)

This 2019 action-sci-fi can be written off as a visual effect parade but it does ask some important questions about individual identity and posthumanism. It follows the story of Alita, a female cyborg who embarks on an epic quest. Waltz plays Dr. Dyson Ido, a doctor who creates Alita by attaching an intact human brain to the body of a cyborg.

“People walk into the theatre thinking it’s mindless spectacle where things hit each other,” Waltz said. “Well they do, but that doesn’t mean that it’s mindless and stupid.”

7. Spectre (Sam Mendes – 2015)

Spectre, admittedly, is one of the mediocre James Bond films despite having a budget of almost $300million. The stunning visuals and sound design are in constant conflict with the presentation of the same old clichés that one can expect from a Bond film. That said, two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz puts up a brilliant performance as the main antagonist, Blofield.

Speaking about the plot of Spectre in an interview, Mendes said, “You don’t have to immediately set out your story by giving context, telling the audience who the characters are, or anything like that. You can start in the middle.”

He added, “I wanted to make full use of that freedom in Spectre and drop the audience right into the middle of something, and give them almost no signposts. Put them in the middle of a labyrinth and let them work their way out of it with the character. And then, gradually reveal story later.”

6. Carnage (Roman Polanski – 2011)

Roman Polanski’s 2011 black comedy is based on the Tony Award-winning 2006 play Le Dieu du carnage by French playwright Yasmina Reza. It explores the petty idiosyncrasies of two inept couples who try to resolve the conflict between their respective children but end up fighting among themselves.

“He knows exactly what he wants and I admire that in a director,” the actor said. “I admire Roman Polanski from A to Z. He made his first movie before I was born and he’s kept it up for this long. There’s a lot to be said for that. You can’t argue with him.

“He’s right. After 60 years of making movies, how could you possibly not insist on what it is that you want? And this is paired with an extraordinary talent and an inside knowledge of the process of making movies. He’s completely with it. I loved that precision, his obsession with details.”

5. The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam – 2013)

It is said that this 2013 sci-fi work is the third part of Gilliam’s satirical dystopian trilogy or “Orwellian triptych” begun with 1985’s Brazil and continued with 1995’s 12 Monkeys. The film revolves around the story of Qohen Leth (played by Waltz), a reclusive computer genius who tries to figure out a formula that will determine the meaning of life itself.

Gilliam was full of praise for Waltz, “He’s an interesting character because unlike a lot of big name stars now, because he is a bankable name, he spent a half a century before he was recognized as a great actor.

“So there’s a lot of stuff going on inside him for all those years that he was bypassed or ignored and I thought he could dredge that stuff up, which he did.  He’s just breathtaking to work with because it’s so small, it’s so delicate what he’s doing, and it’s always watchable and believable.”

4. Water for Elephants (Francis Lawrence – 2011)

Waltz plays yet another antagonist in Francis Lawrence’s 2011 romantic drama. Jacob (played by Robert Pattinson) drops out of veterinary school at Cornell University and joins a travelling circus where he is required to take care of animals. His boss (Waltz) has a ruthless perspective when it comes to animals, insisting that an animal’s suffering is nothing compared to a man’s.

Lawrence elaborated on Waltz’s character, “Now, his morality is questionable. Personally, I align myself with Jacob anyway, and he’s going to build his life in a very moral way. But that’s the approach Christoph and I had.  And it’s also interesting, because there were certain moments where the scenes were scripted a bit scarier, in kind of an on-the-nose way.”

Adding, “What I think Christoph is good at doing is taking that away and letting it be in the performance, and in the character in his approach to a scene. There’s a sequence in the movie where he finally realises that the two of them are in love, and he makes them dance, and he’s being a bit sadistic.”

3. Big Eyes (Tim Burton – 2014)

This biographical drama follows the story of the extremely talented painter Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams) and her problems with her domineering husband (Christoph Waltz) who claimed credit for his wife’s works in the 1960s. It is a subtle yet powerful portrayal of a woman who found her artistic voice before she found her liberty. Waltz earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.

“[Art] is what [Margaret’s] life is all about,” Waltz said. “To then go and take that away, claim it your own, and sell it and make it a big commercial success without letting the actual artist participate, that’s exploitation, abuse and lying. I claim that Walter Keane actually is part of the creator, because he created a commercial product. She’s more of the designer.”

2. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino – 2012)

Tarantino’s revisionist Western stars Jamie Foxx as a former slave who is freed and goes on a badass rampage in order to rescue his wife. Waltz is fantastic as Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter who becomes Django’s companion. For his performance, Waltz won an Academy Award, BAFTA Award, and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Tarantino said, “I felt no obligation to bow to any 21st Century political correctness. What I did feel an obligation to do was to take the 21st Century viewers and physically transport them back to the ante bellum South in 1858, in Mississippi, and have them look at America for what it was back then. And I wanted it to be shocking.”

1. Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino – 2009)

Tarantino blurs the lines between history and fantasy in his 2009 war film which has the famous scene in where Hitler is repeatedly shot in the face with a submachine gun. It follows the plans of a group of Jewish U.S. soldiers who plan to assassinate Nazi leaders in Nazi-occupied France during WW-II.

Waltz delivers the performance of a lifetime as Col. Hans Landa, an incredibly intelligent Nazi officer who is fluent in multiple languages and is labelled as “The Jew Hunter”. Waltz won an Academy Award, BAFTA Award, and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor as well as several other awards from major Critics’ circles.

“He’s one in a million,” Tarantino praised Waltz. “Landa is one of the best characters I’ve ever written. He comes from a long line of suave, charming Nazis. I tried to have the audience, almost against their will, invest in him being a detective. You want him to figure out what the basterds are doing just to see what he’ll do.”

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