Versatility is his middle name
by Martin Blaney
- Whenever conversation turns to the actor Ulrich Muehe, one inevitably hears the word "versatile" being used to describe his skill in being able to change effortlessly from one kind of role to the next
"My choice of profession was there very early on and I doggedly pursued this goal," he recalls. After an apprenticeship in the construction industry and 18 months military service, Ulrich Muehe enrolled at the Hans Otto Theater Academy in Leipzig in 1975. This is where he came to appear on stage in plays by Friedrich Schiller, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Wolfe and he returned there after graduation in 1979 for his first engagement, debuting with the role of Lyngstrand in Henrik Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea". In 1982, Heiner Mueller cast him in a production of "Macbeth" and, a year later, Muehe had become a member of the ensemble at the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin. His first encounters with film and television at the beginning of the 1980's "opened up a completely new world to me. My first dealings with the camera came with the television productions of theater classics." Over the years, Muehe has worked with several of the most respected directors in the industry such as Bernhard Wicki (he won a Bavarian Film Award in 1989 for his performance in Spider's Web), Frank Beyer (Das letzte U-Boot), Helmut Dietl (Schtonk!) and Constantin Costa-Gavras (Amen) and no less than three times with Michael Haneke (on Benny's Video, Funny Games and Das Schloss).
"Working in these media is about different ways of practicing ones profession," he suggests. "In both cases [theater and film], it is about energy, but the difference is just the degree of energy. In the theater, for every thought I have for a role, I need to translate this into physical and vocal form so that it is transported back to the last row in the theater. Standing in front of the camera, though, it is sufficient in the ideal situation if I just think this thought. I don't need to make that translation."
As a conscious strategy to make himself better known to the up-and-coming generation of film directors, Muehe accepted the role of the forensic expert Dr. Robert Kolmaar in the ZDF crime series Der letzte Zeuge. Last year, he received a German Television Award and Bavarian Television Award for his portrayal in the series. The strategy clearly paid off for he was then approached by debut filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck to play the role of the Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler in his feature The Lives of Others [+see also:
interview: Florian Henckel von Donners…
interview: Ulrich Muehe
film profile]. "When I first read the script, it was in such an outstanding condition, that I was very keen to meet this young director," Muehe recalls. "The film describes a period I know very well, so I thought it was really great that a young man had come along who was already able to capture that atmosphere in his screenplay to begin with." As Muehe points out, one probably needed more than fifteen years after the end of the GDR before such a film as The Lives of Others could be made. "Of course, Florian had the advantage that he isn't anchored ideologically on one particular side. He has been able to act very freely and impartially, but I think one just needed a certain amount of time before being able to address the issues in a more intelligent way. There were often victims of the Stasi in the screenings and in the discussions they said how very grateful they were for this film. We were pleased that we hadn't insulted or attacked anybody in their biography, and so that's why I am also so happy with this film which has achieved so much and stimulates discussion."
Muehe is not resting on his laurels despite bagging the Bavarian Film Award and a Golden Lola as Best Actor for his performance as Gerd Wiesler. He says that he would like to try his hand at directing for the cinema – he directed Heiner Mueller's play "Der Auftrag" two years ago – but still hasn't yet found a story idea he would like to commit to celluloid.