Waltz was born in Vienna, the son of Johannes Waltz and Elisabeth Urbancic, set and costume designers from Germany and Austria respectively. His maternal grandfather, Rudolf von Urban, was a psychiatrist and psychologist who wrote the book Sex Perfection and Marital Happiness. His maternal grandmother was Burgtheater actress Maria Mayen, and his step-grandfather was actor Emmerich Reimers. His great-grandparents also worked in theatre of dreams.
Waltz studied acting at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna. In the late 1970s, Waltz spent some time in New York City where he studied method acting with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. He started as a stage actor, performing at venues such as Zurich's Schauspielhaus Zürich, Vienna's Burgtheater, and the Salzburg Festival. He became a prolific television actor in the years 1980 to 2000. In 2000, he made his directorial debut, with the German television production Wenn man sich traut. Before coming to the attention of a larger audience in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds he had played Dr. Hans-Joachim Dorfmann in the British TV series The Gravy Train in 1990. The show is a story of intrigue and misdeeds set in the offices of the European Union in Brussels.
In Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, Waltz portrayed SS-Standartenführer Hans Landa, aka "The Jew Hunter". Clever, courteous, and multilingual — but also self-serving, cunning, implacable, and murderous — the character of Landa was such that Tarantino feared he "might have written a part that was un-playable". Waltz received the Best Actor Award for the performance at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and received acclaim from critics and the public. In 2009, he began sweeping critics' awards circuits, receiving awards for Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and for Best Supporting Actor at the 67th Golden Globe Awards and the 16th Screen Actors Guild Awards in January 2010.
The following month, he won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He is the only actor to have won an Academy Award for playing a character in a Tarantino film. Tarantino acknowledged the importance of Waltz to his film by stating: "I think that Landa is one of the best characters I've ever written and ever will write, and Christoph played it to a tee. It's true that if I couldn't have found someone as good as Christoph I might not have made Inglourious Basterds".
Waltz played gangster Benjamin Chudnofsky in The Green Hornet (2011); that same year, he starred in Water for Elephants and Roman Polanski's Carnage. He played German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012), a role Tarantino wrote specifically for Waltz. During a training accident prior to filming, Waltz injured his pelvis. His role garnered him awards acclaim once again, with Waltz winning the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and ultimately the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Waltz has been cast as the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the film Reykjavik, based on the 1986 peace talks between the United States and USSR. In April 2013, he was selected as a member of the main competition jury at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. In late 2013, he directed a production of the opera Der Rosenkavalier at the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp, Belgium. In 2014, he was selected as a member of the jury for the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. He starred as Walter Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes, which opened on 25 December 2014, and appeared as the villain in Spectre, the 24th film in the James Bond franchise.
In 2015, it was announced that Waltz will direct and star in the film The Worst Marriage in Georgetown, which is based on the true crime story of the murder of Viola Drath. In July 2016, he portrayed lead villain Captain Leon Rom, a corrupt Belgian captain, in the reboot The Legend of Tarzan.
Waltz has three children with his former wife. He is raising a daughter (b. 2005) with his second wife, costume designer Judith Holste. They divide their time among Berlin, London, and Los Angeles.
Waltz's native language is German and he is fluent in English and French. He speaks all three of these in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, and although his character in Inglourious Basterds also spoke Italian, Waltz said on the Adam Carolla Podcast that he is not fluent in Italian. He is his own voice actor for both the French and German dubs of each film.
Waltz was born in Vienna to a German father who applied for him to become a citizen of Germany after his birth. He received Austrian citizenship in 2010, thus holding citizenships of both Austria and Germany, but considers his German passport a "legal, citizenship law banality". Asked whether he felt Viennese, he responded: "I was born in Vienna, grew up in Vienna, went to school in Vienna, graduated in Vienna, studied in Vienna, started acting in Vienna – and there would be a few further Viennese links. How much more Austrian do you want it?"