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Relentless in acting and anger

Matthias Heine on German actor Ulrich Mühe, who passed away on Sunday

In the spring of 2006, when actor Ulrich Mühe fought out a legal and press battle with his ex-wife Jenny Gröllmann, many were astonished at his relentless anger. Because Jenny Gröllmann was already terminally ill, and spent her last months fighting rumours that she had informed on her husband for the Stasi during their marriage. Ultimately she won out, and it was prohibited to make this allegation. Now that Ulrich Mühe has himself died of cancer at just 54, it's clear that for the fatally ill actor, the desire to quickly clear up the truth was perhaps more pressing than other considerations.

Ulrich Mühe in "The Lives of Others." Photo: Buena Vista

However that may be, the story once more demonstrates the truth behind the Oscar-winning film "The Lives of Others" - for all the disputes over detail (see our review by Wolf Biermann here). Like his life, Mühe's film showed what the GDR did to its most upright, scrupulous citizens and artists, and how long the dictatorship's poison kept working in the most private spheres.

The lead role in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film was Mühe's ticket to immortality: no one who has seen "The Lives of Others" will ever forget the face of the line-toeing Stasi officer who becomes an enemy of the system while bugging an artistic milieu, as a new world opens up to him. It could have been the start of an international career. Recently Mühe was visited by Tom Cruise, and the two talked for several hours with the help of an interpreter about the cinema, politics and Cruise's role in the Stauffenberg film he is now shooting in Berlin. But Mühe, suffering from cancer of the stomach, couldn't go on.

Long before "The Lives of Others," Mühe was no stranger to the silver screen. His breakthrough in the West came in 1986, when he played the invidious opportunist Theodor Lohse in Bernhard Wicki's "Das Spinnennetz" (the spider's web), with supporting actors like Klaus Maria Brandauer and Armin Müller-Stahl. In "Schtonk" in 1992, he played the publisher of the magazine that put out the faked Hitler diaries.

In the 1990s, when Michael Haneke - now a star director of French cinema - was still shooting in German, Mühe became his favourite actor. In "Bennys Video," "Das Schloss" and "Funny Games," he played beside his third wife, Susanne Lothar. While it his role as Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler that brought him international fame, Mühe thanked his celebrity in German living rooms to the role of Dr. Robert Kolmaar. Starting in 1998, he played the forensic doctor in more than 60 episodes of "Der letzte Zeuge" (the last witness). The award-winning ZDF series is a good example of how East Germans often boosted the quality of German television after the fall of the Wall. Apart from Mühe, these include Jörg Gudzuhn in the role of the commissar and many supporting actors, as well as screenwriter Gregor Edelmann and director Bernhard Stephan.

Mühe contributed personally to the downfall of the GDR. He helped organise and spoke at the large demonstration on Berlin's Alexanderplatz on November 4, 1989, in which hope for "another form of socialism" was articulated one last time, but which above all heightened the panic of the old regime.

At the time Mühe was rehearsing "Hamlet/Maschine" at the Deutsches Theater under Heiner Müller. The dramatist-director and his lead actor had both had passports for a long time, yet they had no desire to leave East-Berlin. For Mühe this was particularly remarkable, as he had fallen seriously ill as a young man while doing duty as a GDR border guard. He found the stupidity and baseness there intolerable. The result: two thirds of his stomach were removed due to ulcers.

But life as an artist offered certain niches, above all at the Deutsches Theater, the country's most celebrated stage. Mühe, who was born in Grimma (Saxony), had been part of the company since 1983. It was there that the "Hamlet" performance - about a country that decays from the inside and ultimately falls into the hands of its external enemy Fortinbras almost without him lifting a finger - premiered in March 1990. The play became a stage requiem for the GDR. During rehearsals the cast and crew had many discussions among themselves, and after the performances they talked openly with the audience. Later on, Mühe wrote about the relationship between actors and audiences at the time: "We'd mouthed off to them from up there for years on end, and they'd loved us for it and no doubt often envied us too. Now they wanted more, only they hadn't yet found their voice, their means of expression."

The art of poetical, ambiguous "mouthing off," to which the audience listened keenly for the slightest allusion critical to the system, had been perfected by Mühe together with the historical cynic Heiner Müller. When Müller died in 1995, Mühe read the poem "Berlin" by Gottfried Benn at his grave as a requiem – in fact a hymn to the immortality of culture untypical for both Müller and Benn: "When the houses are but boards / when the armies and the hordes / stand above our graves... / when the walls fall / still the debris will call / telling of the great Occident."

Mühe was among the last to fight against the mortality of Müller's dramas, in the end almost alone. In 2005 he staged Müller's "Der Auftrag" (the contract) in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele with a cast of prominent actors. But this tribute to his dead friend and spiritual mentor made little impact.

In the 90s Mühe only acted in the theatre occasionally, the last time beside Katharina Schüttler in Sarah Kane's "Blasted" at the Schaubühne in Berlin under Thomas Ostermeier. But his best performance was in another Kane play. In "Cleansed", directed by Peter Zadek, he played the fascinating, spine-chilling poetic slaughterer Dr. Tinker, who amputates the limbs of those who love him. It is a weird coincidence how often the roles he played had to do with medicine and death. In 1997 he even played a moribund cancer patient in the Sat.1 thriller "Sterben ist gesünder" (dying is healthier).

One baleful irony of his life and death was that at the end he lived once more under total surveillance. Around the clock he was followed by paparazzi who had caught wind of his illness. When he wanted to leave the house for short walks, the photographers had to be distracted by having several cars leave the property at the same time. Mühe hid in one of them, huddled on the back seat.

Last weekend he made a twofold escape. The one led ahead, into the public eye. "Yes, I have cancer. I hope my situation will soon improve," he told the Berliner Morgenpost. The second escape took him to the country, where he sought peace in Walbeck in Saxony-Anhalt. There, on Sunday, as the nation took shocked cognisance of his illness, he had already died. On Wednesday he was buried in all stillness in the close circle of his family.

"I spend a lot of time with my children and my wife," he had said in the interview. A few weeks ago a village near Berlin was home to a family reunion with all five children from three marriages. Old wounds from the Stasi dispute that had torn the family apart were healed. He died reconciled.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on July 26, 2007.

Matthias Heine is a theatre critic for Die Welt.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european