The evil of Hans Landa

The 2009 Oscar-winning performance of Christoph Walz as a Jew hunter in Inglorious Basterds is a masterpiece – one of my favourites of all time. Walz’s portrayal of an evil S.S. officer – allegedly based on Alois Brunner – is truly menacing, if only because he’s so affable so much of the time. It’s the audience’s knowledge, prompted with a perfectly tuned musical score, which fills in the blanks to make the viewer’s emotions so strong.

Early in the film, Landa’s politeness and unhurried nature is the first time he creates a huge sense of menace: not just because the suspect (played heart-achingly by Denis Ménochet) is fully aware of what’s coming. From that point on, it’s clear that Lanz is to be hated. Tarantino’s introduces the character as a figure of fear even before he appears on screen. Ménochet’s farmer sees the small soldier convoy coming down the farm road and his reaction tells you that something terrible is about to happen.

Understated and simple, Walz exudes a real sense of evil simply by remaining calm and only putting across a real threat through his eyes, as he gets down to the real purpose of his visit. He’s calm, reasonable and self-justified, with only his subsequent actions belying his madness.

It takes Walz just six seconds to win the hatred of the audience by subtly changing his expression: from a reasonable military officer to a vindictive and evil monster. (From 1:18m in the linked video.)

At the end of that sequence, you’d expect Landa to raise a gun and shoot the girl as she runs away, but he doesn’t. She’s already out of range and, as it turns out later, a main figure in the story.

We see her as a cinema owner meeting with Joseph Goebbels and a small entourage to discuss a special film screening, when Landa arrives unexpectedly. By now, we know who he is, but she is first revealed to be the girl from the previous scene in a brief flash-back. Landa’s hand on her shoulder, restraining her from standing up as the rest of the party leaves, is therefore very menacing to the audience.

It’s plain that he has strong suspicions of who she is right from the start, as he bade her farewell by name in the earlier sequence. But again, Walz plays his piece politely and reasonably, dropping in a very subtle reference to the past and a subliminal threat, by ordering Shosanna (Emmanuelle) a glass of milk: the same drink he gained from Ménochet’s farmer at the start of the film, before murdering the rest of her family.

The audience knows now that he’s evil, so when he orders gratuitous portions of strudel and cream in an era of great rationing, we get to hate him a little bit more. His enjoyment of it – and masterful order to “wait for the cream” – is almost obscene. And again, he hardens his facial expression and both Soshanna and the audience wait with bated breath for something terrible to happen.

As the film starts to come to a close, Lanz has captured two American soldiers and the real cracks of his insanity start to show properly. By now, the audience really hates him, so his joking and laughing and excitement for a life of freedom after the war is truly obscene.

Having sacrificed the German High Command and having made a deal with the Americans to claim asylum in the States, he surrenders to Brad Pitt’s American unit at the end of the film. They are unable to kill him because of the deal he’s made. By this point in the film, he’s a true figure of hatred for the audience, so the final scene sees him receive a truly gruesome punishment. The close-up filming and detailed effects actually turn my stomach, so I won’t detail them or link to them here. But it’s one of the best non-death-based punishments in cinematic history, which Landa has been earning his entire life.

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