''The Lives of Others'' director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck remembers his star, the late Ulrich Muhe, and how the Oscar-winning movie helped the actor ''close a chapter'' of his painful past

By Youyoung Lee
Updated August 30, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck won international acclaim and the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2006’s The Lives of Others, but that success was made bittersweet just a few months later, when his star and dear friend, Ulrich Mühe, died of stomach cancer. In the movie, set in communist Berlin before the fall of the Wall in 1989, Mühe plays an icy Stasi commander who slowly begins to thaw while monitoring a passionate playwright and his wife; his performance similarly warmed audiences’ hearts.

But what people may not know — a fact discussed on the commentary track of the just-released DVD — is that the East German-born Mühe had been under Stasi surveillance himself since the age of 16 (including, he claimed, by his second wife), and had felt so betrayed that ”he could hardly enjoy all the success of our film,” according to von Donnersmarck. Here, the director speaks of Mühe’s history, vision, and last days before his death on July 22, at age 54.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Looking at Mühe’s other films, like Costra-Gavras’ Amen (about Pope Pius XII’s relationship with the Nazis during WWII) and your film, it seemed like the actor favored movies that made large political statements.
FLORIAN HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK: He said that the role of art is not just to leave people at peace, it’s really to get them to think and to feel and to realize what an exciting thing life is.

The Lives of Others was your first film. How did a relatively unknown director like you get Mühe (a vet who’d also done movies for Michael Haneke) to join the cast?
Well, the thing is, he really liked my screenplay. He interviewed me for several hours to see if I was up to directing my own script! How much I knew about all the details of the GDR [German Democratic Republic]. So he actually took out his own Stasi files that he had claimed and put them in front of him.

When did you know that he’d take the role?
He asked me, ”Okay, you’ve written a screenplay where this person is in an attic for the duration of two hours and he’s moved all the time by everything he hears — how do you act that?” I said to him, ”I don’t think you act it at all.” And then he said, ”Okay, I’ll do it.”

What was your budget like?
He got paid for about 20 percent of what he normally makes for my film — he was willing to say, ”Look, I know you don’t have the money because you don’t have the distributor, I believe in this film. We’re going to make this work.” That really gave me a lot of faith.

Mühe’s character is so central to your film, yet his speaking lines are completely minimal. What was his response to this?
I remember this one incident where he said, ”You’re completely robbing me of my eloquence.” I said, ”Look, your eloquence is so interior to this whole thing that you don’t have to worry about that.” It was funny, the first few weeks he’d always go to the video set and just silently play and watch everything that he’d just done. It was something just to show me, ”I’m watching you.” After a while he just completely stopped doing that and started trusting me.

How did Mühe’s upbringing in communist Berlin contribute to his portrayal of the Stasi agent?
This film allowed him to close a chapter in his life, to work through things again that had not yet been processed fully by him. The movie’s about the leading artists in the GDR around 1984, and that’s exactly what he was. He had been under surveillance from the moment he left high school. [He gave a speech] on the 4th of November [1989, just days before the Berlin Wall came down]. You could feel the political turmoil, but people didn’t know…[if] this could turn into another Tiananmen Square or Prague Spring. He was one of the organizers of the big demonstration [at the Berlin Wall] and talked before half a million people saying, ”Look, we have to make sure that this turmoil that we’re going through at the moment is used for something positive.”

NEXT PAGE: ”Sometimes I’d ask him, ‘Why does all your anxiety always express itself in illness?”’

See the trailer for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s crazy that the scenario is exactly flip-flopped — that he plays the Stasi agent here.
FLORIAN HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK: It was strange — he was an incredibly courageous man in spirit and in will, but he didn’t have the physical constitution of a hero. He was positioned at the Berlin Wall as a sniper during his obligatory military service, and that got to him so much that at age 19, he collapsed on duty with stomach ulcers. He lost half his stomach — that was the origin of the ailment that killed him 35 years later.

So it all comes back full circle…
Sometimes I’d ask him, ”Why does all your anxiety always express itself in illness?” And he said, ”I tend not to be outward going that much. All my emotions go back in.”

How close did you become with Mühe while working with him?
There’s no one except possibly my wife, and my children — well, probably not even my children — that I spent more time with over the past three and half years. We really spent so much time together thinking about the film, making the film, traveling with the film, trying to explain it to people.

After spending so much time with the actor, was there some sort of philosophy that you two shared?
He always had this fear that somehow — this is something that we really saw eye-to-eye with — that somehow he would just create a film that was good entertainment for the two hours that it lasted, but that was somehow gone the moment went out of the theater. He felt that here, through his performance, he really touched people’s hearts.

Not many people knew that he had stomach cancer. Why the secrecy?
It was crazy, I had known for a long time that he was very sick, but he kept this completely secret from everyone, because he said that he did not want to be spared out of pity. He just wanted the undiluted truth — when people showed him love for it to be real love, and not something out of pity.

Your film really made Mühe internationally well-known. How do you think he would’ve liked to be remembered?
This is one thing I think is important: He wanted to be loved as much as every actor does, but at the same time he was willing to take steps that would cost him love just because he knew that they were right.