A life spent chipping the Wall; Ulrich Muhe was a vocal opponent of East Germany
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 31 July 2007)

In one frail body and one busy career, Ulrich Muhe (1953-2007) symbolized the persistent waves of fury and insecurity that swept over Germany for six decades. He was an artist embroiled against his will in the secrecy and decadence of East Germany. His death from cancer last week ended a career that was marked by political conflict and bitter irony.

He succeeded grandly in theatre, films and TV, and enjoyed an Academy Awards triumph by starring in The Lives of Others, winner for the best foreign film of 2006. But he never lost his anger toward the police-infested country of his birth, the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

He grew up as a tanner's son in Saxony, fulfilled his national service requirement as a Berlin border guard and, after acting school, became a star of the GDR's well-funded theatres. He played Hamlet in Hamletmaschine, a much-admired production depicting Denmark as a country decaying from inside, conquered with ease by Fortinbras. Nobody failed to see that the GDR was the real subject.

For Muhe in those years, "Theatre was the only place in the GDR where people weren't lied to." Great literature was a connection to the more expansive, generous world outside. "Shakespeare was more than this smallish, pissy GDR. I wanted to leave it all behind me. I couldn't breathe."

He became a dissident and the object of scrutiny by government agents. His famous speech attacking the legitimacy of the GDR (delivered to a huge crowd of East Berliners in Alexanderplatz, five days before deconstruction of the Wall began) helped panic the government.

Later, as a TV star, he turned into a symbol of successful reunification, proof that East and West Germany were united in the national imagination. He poured his anti-GDR feelings into his performance as Gerd Wiesler, the snake-like Stasi agent in The Lives of Others. Still, his subtle interpretation of the script let audiences believe that even Wiesler, finally understanding the evil he served, could be redeemed.

And then, as the appalling details of Muhe's own life emerged over the last 16 months (much more will no doubt be told in future), Germans saw again the callous stupidity of dictatorship.

The Stasi (the Ministry of State Security), an octopus stretching into every corner of society, routinely set out to "corrode" potential enemies of the state -- as good Marxists, they preferred that scientific term to "corrupt," with its moral overtones.

The Stasi obeyed no rules, recognized no limits. They recruited clergy as spies and installed recording devices in confessionals. And they lied, even to each other.

After the secret files were opened, Muhe read in his own dossier that his former wife, Jenny Grollmann, had been spying on him. They co-starred in a film, married in 1984 and became a famous and glamorous couple, like the playwright and his girlfriend in The Lives of Others.

By the time Muhe read his file, they were divorced. He revealed his discovery to the public. Grollmann denied that she had ever been a spy and demanded that he stop defaming her. He refused, she sued and, after an acrimonious struggle, she won--although the judgment didn't come down until after she died last summer, also of cancer. A Stasi officer confessed that he had falsified his reports when claiming her as a "registered informer."

Talking to her, he had never revealed he was with the Stasi.

If that agent's second story is true, he believed totally in the GDR's future, assuming that no one but other Stasi officers would ever see his reports. In The Limits of Secret Police Power (2004), a book about the Stasi, Edward Peterson of the University of Wisconsin reported that, in 1977, an officer whined about his difficult job: "I am forced to send in obscuring reports to give the impression that something is being done."

Muhe's character in the film also fakes reports, to hide what he's learned by bugging the playwright. Also in the movie, the Stasi wants the playwright's girlfriend to inform on him. The events add layers of ambiguous subtext to The Lives of Others, a film that will be studied for generations, not only in Germany.

Muhe was in pain while attending the Academy Awards and soon after underwent a major operation. He stopped accepting parts and withdrew from a film in which he was to play Klaus Barbie, a Nazi war criminal. He spent all his time with his third wife and children.

Rightly or wrongly, he blamed his cancer on the time he served at the Berlin Wall. It gave him ulcers, leading to an operation that (he believed) made him vulnerable to the stomach cancer that eventually killed him. He didn't publicly confirm that he had cancer until he gave an optimistic newspaper interview that appeared on the day he died. "I'm going through the necessary treatments, and I hope to get better soon," he said.

Last week, Matthias Heine, Die Welt's theatre critic, wrote that many who knew Muhe were astonished at the anger he exhibited in the struggle with Grollmann. Perhaps, conscious that he might soon be dead, he was eager to straighten the record as he saw it. But it was also true that his life, like The Lives of Others, "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."

Wolf Biermann, a poet, folk singer and long-time dissident in East Germany, wrote recently about people who lived all their lives in the freedom of the West and now take a gentle view of the leaders who made the GDR a hell for Biermann and millions of others. West Germans like to say they are thankful they never had to find out whether they would have collaborated with the regime. Typically they conclude, "Luckily it's all over, it's all in the past." To this "shabby modesty," Biermann replies, "In the past, my ass! Nothing is really completely over." Memories of what happened remained permanently installed in the souls of the millions who suffered, including Muhe.

After reunification, Muhe turned down several chances to appear in films about life in the GDR. He was waiting, perhaps, for the script that would carry significant echoes of the story he lived. When asked how he prepared for The Lives of Others, he replied, "I remembered."

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image