The Genius of Col. Hans Landa
Warning: This essay is about the inception, concept and execution of the character expertly played by Christoph Waltz. The following contains plot points and spoilers for “Inglourious Basterds.” Be advised.
This character of Colonel Hans Landa has been percolating in the indelible mind of Quentin Tarantino for almost a decade. Watching a recent interview with Quentin, he reflected that Landa’s voice come pouring out of him. You can tell onscreen that he poured his heart and soul into the character.
Landa is a complex character that has many layers to his madness or his genius to figure out. When you first meet him, your first impression is to hate him automatically because he is an SS officer. It’s instinct. However, he is so much more than that. Having that lengthy conversation with the French milk farmer was like a game of chess to him. He knew from the moment that he stepped out of his jeep that the farmer was hiding the Jewish family, the Dreyfuses, underneath his floorboards.
Landa is a detective like a bloodhound. He sniffs out the Jews he wants. I was going to say a German Shepard, but they would be too obvious. He can tell from the inflection in your voice to a slight twitch of your brow that you are hiding the truth from him. When the farmer picked up his corn pipe and smoked, Landa had to produce a “Sherlock Holmes” style pipe for the following story. He is close to getting what he wants.
He relays the story about the man versus the rat. At first you are thinking, what the hell is he talking about? Nevertheless, when you get deeper into the story you realize that you agree with him. Only Tarantino’s words could convey a person’s viewpoint, even though you do not agree with their methods, a person’s thoughts that is brutally honest and to the point.
“The Jew Hunter” as the Allied forces affectionately call him, gets what he wants from the farmer he orders the massacre of the family. All perished except one, Shosanna, who escapes from a similar fate. She runs through the field with Landa coming after her in a long distance. He has his gun pointed at her, yet he does not pull the trigger.
Why would he do that? Does he want to have the thrill of the chase? Did he instinctively know that they would cross paths again? Did he show compassion or does he wants Shosanna to suffer with survivor’s guilt?
When the two of them meets three years later, Shosanna immediately recognized him, but he does not recognize her. When she was running away, Landa never had a clear view of her face. However, he could have deduced that she could be the girl, but that would be reaching. The tension was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Shosanna’s hate for this man is bubbling at the surface. He is calm trying to have both of them enjoyed a plate of strudel. He urges her to wait for the cream.
You think that exchange was about an authentic German strudel. No. Landa wanted to delve into the mind of Shosanna or Emmauelle Mimieux as she is called now. How did she come to own her own cinema at such a young age? She explains it to him. He believes here. All the time during the conversation, the audience thinks that he would ask her if she was the girl that he let get away in that farm three years. You are waiting for the big reveal to happen, but it doesn’t. She is safe again.
Landa’s keen eye worked to perfection when firefight happens in a small basement tavern. Peering at the bullet-riddled bodies of some of the “basterds”, he knows that one person was missing in the heap of bodies, a woman. He finds a woman’s right dress shoe. In the rumble of bullet casings and blood, he finds a single napkin that has the actress, Bridget von Hammersmark’s signature on it.
At the movie première, Landa confronts Bridget and the rest of the “basterds” who are pretending to be Italian. He inquires about their intentions, especially Bridget who has her leg bandage when she was shot in the leg at the firefight. She tells Landa that she injured it mountain climbing. He laughs hysterically at the ridiculous excuse. He had to have room to laugh uproariously.
He regains his composure to usher Bridget into a small room off to side. He interrogates Bridget about her deception about her leg, her lost shoe and her being a double agent. There’s only one thing that he has to do. He strangles her. You understand his motives. This woman betrayed her own country and she has to die for her betrayal.
He knows that her Italian escorts were actually the rest of the basterds from his extensive knowledge as a linguist. Capturing Raine and Utvich and transporting them to a secret location would be clichéd for the “bad guy” verbally threatening the “good guys” in any other movie, but this is a Tarantino movie.
Landa pulls a bait and switch on the Raine and Utivich He is an opportunist at his core. He wants to have his name in history books as a war hero for either side.
The last frame you see of him is that Landa “turns himself in” to be transported by Raine and Utivich is betrayed by the basterds. He actually lets his guard down for that last moment. They shoot his driver and they carve a swastika into his forehand. Now, he cannot be the perfect war hero that he wants to be. He is now branded as a Nazi forever by this symbol visible on his face.
What will happen to him as he goes into the U.S.? He cannot lead a normal life. He might be a recluse or he commits suicide. That’s it.
There some secret motivations of Col. Hans Landa that you would glance over when you saw the movie, but afterward, you realize that he is genius. He was like a chess player. He knew exactly what moves to make to get his checkmate. Just brilliant.
Tarantino remarked that Landa was the greatest character that has ever created. In my opinion, I would doubt that statement, but I will take his word for it the more I think about it.
Waltz brings a subtlety and nuisance to the character that a well-known person like it was rumored that Leo DiCaprio would play the part, but he would not notice finding the character. Tarantino was quoted in saying that if he could not find a perfect man to play Landa then the movie could not happen.
Naturally, Waltz is receiving a lot of praise for his work in this film. He has already won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Festival earlier this year. People are touting him for giving a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work. The way that the momentum is going, I think he could walk home with the prize on Oscar night. We just have to see.