Inside a small farmhouse on rolling hills, Colonel Hans Landa, a supremely manipulative German SS commanding officer - and a psychopath with exuberant manners - is spinning a web of incrimination around a humble French farmer thought to be hiding a Jewish family.
The officer, played by the accomplished, Austrian-born actor Christoph Waltz, is not only entrapping the farmer, playing off his every expression. He is also keenly aware of himself. He drips with charm. His gestures are just shy of flamboyant, belying his assassin's hands.
And just off-camera, his eyes fixed on the actor, is Quentin Tarantino.
I was completely enthralled with this character, and I think Quentin was too.
Tarantino isn't a director who watches video feed taken from rolling movie cameras: During the shooting of his violent Second World War fable Inglourious Basterds (which opens this Friday) and particularly during Waltz's interrogation scenes, Tarantino watches the actors directly.
"He's there. He's standing next to the camera looking at you. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, Quentin is always with you," says Waltz, over the telephone from Los Angeles, speaking with some of the same jittery energy as his onscreen character. "Considering that he's also the author of this [script] it gave me a great sense of security. I always had faith. I could let fly, so to say."
Tarantino's script, having gone through a decade of gestation, relies on the Waltz character as the linchpin for various plot lines. Tarantino has said in interviews that without the right actor to play the officer, there wouldn't have been a film. Waltz wound up landing the prize for best actor when the movie was shown at the Cannes film festival earlier this year.
Was it difficult for Waltz to know how far to push the officer's mannerisms and affectations, without overdoing them?
"No, no, no, no. It was challenging, and challenges are exhilarating," Waltz says. "In what I do as an actor, a proper challenge was the thing that I was missing for so long. Along comes this part that is one of the greatest parts ever ! The thousands of layers and twists and currents that all happen at the same time are unparalleled."
There are also multifaceted moral issues in the film, particularly those involving its central theme of revenge. Inglourious Basterds abounds with scenes of Nazis being maimed and killed in ways that replicate the atrocities Nazis themselves conducted during the Holocaust. Was there much on-set discussion about how the film might be perceived, or perhaps about the cathartic nature of film violence for some viewers?
"There were no deep analytical discussions about this or that," Waltz says. The mechanics of making the film and bringing the characters to life were what everyone was focused on. Larger issues did come up in conversation, "but it was not really our main concern, at least not between Quentin and myself. I was completely enthralled with this character, and I think Quentin was too."
He adds that neither his character's flippant gestures nor his cold stare were ad libbed - as when, for instance, in the scene with the farmer, the officer displays an undercurrent of giddiness despite the psychological entrapment going on.
"Everything was on the page. That was my job: to find out what it is and get out of its way," Waltz says. "Tarantino is really a fantastic writer. That first scene in the movie is a classical drama - classical in the true, Aristotelian sense. The unity of space, time and location is never broken. The conflict is pure, essential, distilled drama. You rarely come across anything anywhere remotely similar."
Waltz said that he wasn't basing the character on anyone in history, or taking elements from other film characters, as might be expected, given all the movie references scattered through Inglourious Basterds . "Yes, he asked me if I wanted to suggest references. And I politely declined. I said, 'I'd like to take it out of what you've written, because if I get sidetracked by other people's stuff, I might miss out on something that might be more important.'"
Playing the part, he didn't edit out the character's flamboyant mannerisms. "That's not what I do. That's the director's job. Quentin is like the first spectator. … Of course, when you start out, you're a bit timid, at least I am. I'm a bit careful. But I totally relied on him, and that proved to be the right thing.
He adds that Tarantino "has enough energy for 50 people. You can jump into his flow of energy and be carried along, and I utilized that as much as I could."
There's obviously more here than merely promoting the film. As Waltz sees it, Tarantino nurtures something far more between himself and his actors.
It started for Waltz during casting in Berlin. Tarantino prefers the old-fashioned way: He didn't rely on recorded auditions provided by a casting director. Tarantino simply met with Waltz, who had been given the entire script, affording the actor a much broader sense of the character.
"It was an immensely civilized and polite and spirited conversation, and then we played around with the script for an hour and a half. It's very unusual to be sent a full script. Nowadays, you get a few pages if you're lucky, a few lines, and you have no idea where they're coming from or where they are leading to. I never know what to do. I just go and read them. So you're turning yourself into this object.
"Not with Quentin. You're allowed to be a subject. Not only are you allowed to be a person; you're required to be one. Everything I knew about Quentin Tarantino, the wild and crazy guy, was not apparent then. There was this polite and solicitous gentleman who had so much to say.
"Then when I left, I said to the casting director, 'If that's it, fine by me. It was great.'"