Contributor NeuroticMarshmallow has written a very insightful comparison of August Rosenbluth and Hans Landa as a response to a criticism that August was a “watered down” version of Landa.
I seem to remember having read a review that said the character of August is merely a watered down version of Hans Landa (This was the only flaw the review listed. The review for the character was otherwise glowing)—I’m here to refute such a claim. This post’s existence is to explain the difference (and similarities) between a power hungry Nazi and a schizophrenic,Jewish ring leader from the 1930s.(Good lord that sounds like the set up for a movie I’d pay to see)
Christoph Waltz has been working for 30 years; He’s been in almost 100 projects in his lifetime. So perhaps comparing his character Hans Landa him to a more recent character, August Rosenbluth is unfair in a way—mostly because everyone does it. But the thing is, I think the general consensus remains that almost all of us know of him because Quentin Tarantino plucked him from his TV career in Germany to stardom. It is the role he is officially remembered for. His prior work is about 90% German speaking—some of them aren’t exactly the best movies in the world, and practically none of them have subtitles—so an English speaker can be forgiven for making the comparison—mostly because a similarity does exist. Luckily though, Mr.Waltz’s acting manages surprisingly well to create two very different characters. The similarities are mere echoes and homages—aside from being blatant ripoffs. August Rosenbluth, played by another actor in the same manner, probably wouldn’t have so readily been compared to Landa (though arguably August would be nothing without Waltz (and I’d agree) considering for a second the symbiotic relationship between an actor and the script)
The main similarity between the both of them is unmistakable: being charismatic albeit unstable, both August and Landa are practically walking keg bombs; that snap the moment they feel their power is being compromised. One of the most fascinating quality of theirs, the quality that I’d argue is the key to Christoph Waltz’s brilliance—and one of the reasons why he is so easily pigeonholed in the villain corner, is that they have finesse for playing mind games. They never quite speak what they’re thinking. Their intentions sometimes unclear and vague —but they know fully well what they’re after and they practically seduce it out of you. This is more prevalent in Landa than it is in August—mostly because I’d argue the entirety of Inglorious Basterds consists of him screwing with people’s heads via ingenious interrogation methods (such as never breaking that facade of generosity till he is aware he has the interrogated under his palm. ) But it does exist in Water for Elephants, perhaps in a more obvious way; because in this you pretty much know his intentions ut he still attempts to wring out the truth in a clever way (which was an excellent job on the writer and actor’s part). One scene in the film, a scene that I’ve mentioned as probably one of my favorites, has August confront Marlena and Jacob. In one of the original script treatments, August confronted the two and basically straight up asks “You’re fucking my wife aren’t you?” .But in the final film version, he doesn’t go about it that way. No—he asks the two of them to basically fondle each other in front of him as he speaks of his suspicions in the form of an idea he has for a circus act. This scene actually strikes me as rather creepy. In the hands of any other actor,I feel this scene might’ve gone about unnoticed—but Christoph speaks with such relish that I half expect August’s intentions were voyeuristic.
Both are power hungry. They beat, maim or kill what they can’t control—just as Landa killed Bridget and August abused Rosie (and arguably both Jacob and Marlena). But I think the similarity in that aspect stops there. A lot goes into saying somebody is “controlling”. Many characters are “controlling”—like how plenty of characters are “diligent” or “kind”. You can’t just say a character is those things without saying why and these two couldn’t possibly be more different in their motivation
Landa is an opportunistic bastard, no doubt, who only really loves himself. He can hardly be considered a Nazi if you get down to it. As Christoph Waltz says himself (I’m paraphrasing here) “Wearing a uniform is no necessarily playing a part”. Landa is willing to “fry the high command” of his respective party to save his own skin. He decides against killing Shoshanna Dreyfuss or going after her in any way. A “Nazi” in the strictest sense would never allow that to happen—and it’s his job to make sure that doesn’t happen—but he spares her regardless. Why? Because he can. He has climbed so high up the ranks of Nazi officer that his power is undeniable. He uses it, He abuses it—he loves it more than anything. His love for power is so indulgent its almost masturbation. It’s this confidence, when making a deal with the captive Basterds that ultimately kicks him in the ass.
What removes August Rosenbluth from that equation is that this character constantly has what Landa doesn’t show till the final scene in Inglorious Basterds: and that’s “vulnerability”. Not once would you ever expect a character that is supposedly a similar counterpart of Hans Landa to have a near breakdown after a particularly violent episode. August’s power-hungry nature is more out of necessity than it is out of pure and sheer love of control. Consider for a second his predicament: Since the age of 19,August has been responsible for absolutely everything that occurs in that circus. Then the recession hits—he has debts to pay so he is unable to to pay his men enough money to get by—he has animals dropping like flies and a star attraction horse with an injury, an elephant incapable of performing—He is starting to lose the circus that took him about 25-30 years to build—then this kid comes out of nowhere and starts to break down his marriage. He is expected to stay calm to keep the illusion alive—something he can’t do. Now he isn’t excused from what he did to both his wife and those animals. Not even under the whole “…well he’s supposedly a paranoid schizophrenic so…”.There are Paranoid Schizophrenics who don’t beat things up at every turn—and in the film it’s not even mentioned, it’s only assumed a’ la the book. But we are given ample hints to how the pressure is ruining him. That is why the final time we ever see his face—dead, eyes wide open, a look of despair, defeat and shock forever etched on his face and blood streaming down his forehead—is such a poignant moment and still haunts me,for whatever reason. Because in perfect poetic justice (actually I see it as a poetic justice. However, I’m pretty sure its existence is merely a plot convenience),the elephant kills August—the poetic justice being that in the end,his work killed him. You could argue for August and say that Jacob and Marlena were ignorant of his plight—but it was warranted—because August was ignorant of theirs.
Perhaps I’m looking too much into the latter film, but August Rosenbluth stands out in “Water for Elephants” because he’s a surprisingly complex character in what might have otherwise just amounted to a star vehicle/ romance blockbuster. I’m pretty confident, infact, that the film without him being portrayed by Christoph Waltz wouldn’t have worked. Hans Landa stands out in Inglorious Basterds for the excellent performance in a Tarantino ensemble piece—and interpreting the subject material in a very intense effective manner—that and the man seemed to come out of nowhere. A “Dark Horse” in every meaning of the term. While villains seem to be becoming his specialty to the point of typecasting, at the very least he does it with such finesse and better than most.