BERLIN (Reuters) - German actor Ulrich Muehe, whose haunting portrayal of an East German secret police agent in the Oscar-winning drama “The Lives of Others” won him international renown, has died at the age of 54, his family said on Wednesday.
Muehe, who grew up in the former communist state and saw his own early career marred by Stasi informants, told German newspapers this month that he was suffering from stomach cancer.
He was a veteran of German theatre and had roles in more than thirty domestic and foreign films, but will be remembered internationally for playing Gerd Wiesler, the bald Stasi officer in the film that won a best foreign language Oscar in February.
In the gripping drama, set in East Berlin five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Muehe’s character is ordered by his Stasi superiors to spy on a prominent playwright who has fallen out of favor with the communist party.
He sets up shop in the attic of the author’s building after wiring his telephone and apartment, but after weeks of listening in on his daily life, finds himself sympathizing with his target.
Initially a committed and cold Stasi agent, Muehe’s quiet Wiesler undergoes a moral transformation and ends up concealing the playwright’s subversive political activities.
Muehe earned best actor at the German Film Prize and European Film Awards for the role in “Das Leben der Anderen”, a German box-office hit directed by Florian Heckel von Donnersmarck.
It has been nearly 18 years since the Berlin Wall fell, but the film was credited as being the first to offer both an honest and compelling depiction of Stasi oppression.
“It took a few years before anyone found a clever way to bring into focus a system that kept 17 million people locked up and under suppression,” Muehe told Reuters after collecting his best actor “Lola” last year in Berlin.
Born in Grimma near Leipzig in eastern Germany, Muehe said his experience of living under communist rule had helped him portray the tragic Wiesler character.
Muehe’s own career was hurt by a Stasi informant close to his family, but he said he believed all human beings were capable of positive change. He argued that art contributed to such change and helped topple the communist regime.
“Art can change your life. It holds a power that is so strong that it can melt even a dreaded Stasi officer,” he said in one interview.
Muehe leaves behind his wife, actress Susanne Lothar, and five children from three marriages.
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