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Ulrich, we hardly knew ye

Posted by Ty Burr  July 25, 2007 03:06 PM

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Ulrich Muhe, the German actor and star of the Oscar-winning art-house hit "The Lives of Others," died Sunday at the age of 54. In "Lives" he played Gerd Wiesler, a pallid Stasi spook who gets emotionally involved with the theater couple whose surveillance he's overseeing. It was a memorable and touching role that introduced Muhe to international audiences after a busy decade and a half in German film and TV; after the Oscar win, his agent received numerous offers from producers in the U.S. and elsewhere. He was respected enough that German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent a public letter of condolence today to Muhe's widow, actress Susanne Lothar.

The cause of death was stomach cancer, but the Hollywood Reporter obit includes "Lives" director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's statement that the ailment stemmed from Muhe's experiences in the East German military in the 1970s, when he developed stomach problems after being ordered to shoot fugitives escaping over the Berlin Wall. (The Spiegel Online obit has further details.)

It's possible, then, that Gerd Wiesler's expression of pained sympathy was real. The character's final words in "The Lives of Others," responding to a novel dedicated to his Stasi code-name, are "Das ist for mich" -- "That is for me." Perhaps the role served a similar cathartic purpose for Ulrich Muhe. Or perhaps it was just his art.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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