“You can’t fuck around with this story,” Billy Magnussen says towards the end of our conversation, and that’s the simple, and honest, takeaway from being a part of Barry Levinson’s vital retelling of Harry Haft’s trauma in The Survivor.
Ever since breaking out on Broadway in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Magnussen has mastered the type of role where good-looking and powerful men look inward at their own actions. In Cary Joji Fukanaga’s Maniac, he was the son of a prominent family facing a harassment trial. For HBO Max’s Made For Love, his Byron Gogol is trying to get out of his own way to earn back the love and trust of his wife. There is a danger hiding just beneath the surface of Magnussen’s unpredictable charm, but for Levinson’s film, Magnussen is very forward with his intellect and persuasion. As Dietrich Schneider, Magnussen embodies pure evil as the Nazi officer dangling Haft’s freedom right in front of him.
Throughout our conversation, Magnussen kept mentioning how proud he was to be part of Levinson’s film, and he wanted to make sure to tell this story as best as he could. It’s difficult to talk about placing yourself in the mindset of a monster who has so little regard for other life.
“I am so proud of this film. He is a monstrous character, but I loved working with Ben Foster. It was so challenging to play the antagonist to his character and causing this person’s trauma. Ben is one of the best actors of our generation, so it’s a weird place to be in to talk about why I like playing the character since he tarnished so much. The work is there, though.”
Almost every time we see Schneider, he is wearing his SS uniform, but I can’t wrap my head around how it must feel to put one of those one–even if it’s a recreation. Magnussen complimented the costume designer, and revealed how it felt to wear it every day on set.
“It was scary. Every costume piece was meticulously done. Germans had the best fashion people of the time there, so just putting it on you feel it through you. Putting on the uniform, you naturally walk and hold yourself a different way. It’s wild. Even with all the history I’ve learned, that feeling is there without even doing anything with it. Schneider was an intellectual officer that knew that Germany was going to lose. He was trying to survive after the war ends.”
Schneider doesn’t spend time with other officers. All of his scenes are with Foster’s Haft alone during training or after a fight where they talk about Germany’s implications in the war. Even when we see Schneider reacting to the fights, he is alone in Haft’s corner.
“Schneider was a little higher ranking officer, and he says in the film, ‘It’s not me. It’s the machine.’ He is separating himself and disassociating himself from it all. It made me recognize privilege in a different way. Schneider got to move through the world that way because if that. He can do all of these things, because of his position.”
When I asked Magnussen if he thought that his character even used Haft’s time in the ring to gain notice from other officers, he replied, “That’s definitely part of it. He’s also trying to build ranks within his own system.”
Could Schneider be afraid of Harry? Magnussen reinforces that the dynamic between Schneider and Haft is all about control. There is also a bone-chilling admiration.
“I don’t think he’s scared of Harry as much as there is this weird admiration of him. He chose Harry for standing up and fighting an officer. We talked so much about their relationship, and there is a line where they compare it to a master and a dog. You can put a dog in a dog fight, but you still care for them. There is a strange motivation for what Schneider does, but there is clearly a very specific power dynamic. Schneider holds all the control.”
In one of the last interactions between Schneider and Haft, Foster’s character pulls a gun on him while Schneider has his back turned. What I didn’t know, however, is that that moment was entirely improvised. Since Magnussen and Foster were so steeped in their characters and making sure they were honoring the story, they didn’t didn’t get to truly meet until after their scenes were in the can.
“That was improvised, baby. We were just in the scene so much. I didn’t get to meet the actor until after we shot. We shot all the stuff in the past first, and I remember after our month of shooting, he and I sat down together for a meal and a drink together. We were both in it. Some of those lines were improvised. I asked his character, ‘How do you feel?’ and he replies with, ‘I feel nothing.’ That exchange wasn’t in the script.”
Towards the end of our conversation, we mention dictators and how it feels intensified with what is going on in Ukraine. What Magnussen left me with, however, is a reminder of even though terrible men die, their ghosts live on. You can remove the cancer of dangerous men, but the struggle lives on.
“Even though the villain of Harry’s life dies, he carries it with him. This is a film about PTSD. Schneider will never leave Harry full, I don’t think. The person dies, but he will always follow him around.”
The Survivor is streaming now on HBO Max.