One of the unexpected joys of Zack Snyder‘s zombie-filed heist extravaganza Army of the Dead was Matthias Schweighöfer as Dieter the uber-charming safecracker, so the idea of a dashing, romantic spin-off movie focused on the character would be welcome news…
Except for one bittersweet (and somewhat spoiler-y) fact: Dieter, like nearly all the characters in Army of the Dead, had a lifespan equivalent to your average carnival goldfish, fruit fly, or Quibi: Grim and brief.
But fear not. In the land of prequels, Dieter and his wavy blond locks live on! And if his star turn in Netflix’s new film, Army of Thieves, proves to be popular, we may see him yet again, says Schweighöfer, who also directed the movie. “You know, the grand master Zack Snyder just said in an interview, ‘We did not see him die on camera, on film.’ So, there is a chance that we’ll bring him back. He said there might be a chance. Maybe yes. Maybe no,” Schweighöfer tells Vanity Fair.
That’s far from the definitive answer viewers seemingly got in last May’s Army of the Dead, when Dieter vanished behind the closing door of the tomb-like safe he had just cracked, pulled backward by the decaying arms of voracious reanimated corpses.
As it stands now, Dieter is trapped within the scientific concept of Schrödinger’s Cat: Until we look into the box to see if he is alive or deceased, he exists in both states at once. “He’s one of the living dead,” Schweighöfer says. Just, in a more theoretical sense—not necessarily the kind that lurches around snacking on people.
The only reason Netflix has a spin-off film in which Dieter and his team go on a safecracking spree across Europe is because Schweighöfer was so damned charming in the original role. They wanted more of him. Army of the Dead was the actor-filmmaker’s introduction to many viewers in the United States, but the 40-year-old has been a major star in his native Germany for years. We’re talking Hasselhoff big.
That’s how he caught the attention of Snyder and his producer/wife Deborah Snyder, who chose him for Dead as the least strong, but arguably most critical member of the team Dave Bautista leads into a zombie-overrun Las Vegas to extract a billionaire’s fortune from the ruins of a casino. The muscle forces their way to the basement safe, then Dieter’s delicate skills come into play as he turns the dials.
Dieter steals all his scenes too, in part because he’s one of the few who isn’t bottled up and fearful the whole time. “All the characters have to whisper,” to avoid drawing attention from the undead, he notes, “But when I read that, I knew: ‘Okay, except Dieter. He could be really loud because everyone has to protect him.’”
In his introductory scene in that earlier film, Bautista and his right-hand mercenary (Ana De La Reguera) find Dieter living undercover as a fugitive, working at a small security company. He lights up when they present him with the blueprints for the famous safe they hope to open, known as “The Götterdämmerung” after the fourth and last opera in composer Richard Wagner’s epic Ring cycle of musical dramas. Dieter explains enthusiastically that he is on the run precisely because he has already cracked the three other safes that were constructed with these operas as inspiration.
Or—he would have explained that, but the scene was cut from the movie. And it was cut because Snyder was so taken by Schweighöfer’s performance of that backstory that he decided they should make it into its own movie.
They started work on Thieves long before Dead was even finished, which is how Dieter got a new beginning even as they were plotting his apparent demise.
Dieter’s first scene in the final version of Army of the Dead is only about two minutes long, but it started out as an epic among introductions. “The first cut that scene was 14 minutes,” Schweighöfer explains. “I did some improv was funny and everyone laughed. I told the whole story about Richard Wagner and the operas, and tiny stuff in between, like, I looked at Dave and was asking, ‘Are you an opera fan?’ And he just stared at me. I said, you know, ‘Obviously not.’ I told the whole backstory, and then Zack made that decision: ‘Okay, he just pitched us the spin-off.’”
The prequel involved Dieter’s life as a nobody, living under his original name, Sebastian, and making safecracking videos on YouTube that get precious few likes and subscribes. One of his fans is Gwendoline (Fast and Furious actress Nathalie Emmanuel,) the leader of a burgeoning crime ring that plans to rob the series of famous safes that were modeled on Wagner’s operas. The rest of the crew includes computer hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee, Schweighöfer’s real-life girlfriend), getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan) and hired muscle Brad (Stuart Martin.)
This movie would be a pure comedy-adventure, with the team galavanting across the picture-postcard luxury locales of Europe as they orchestrate schemes to infiltrate their hardened targets and get Dieter/Sebastian up close and personal with the fabled vaults. In the background, on TV screens, and in one notable dream sequence, there are flashes of the zombie apocalypse to come.
Here’s where Schweighöfer paid tribute to Snyder for opening the door to him with his first English-language film. A dream in which a zombified little girl staggers through Dieter’s hallway is an homage to the opening zombie from Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, in which a couple’s daughter attacks them in their bedroom.