'Lives of Others' star Ulrich Muhe dies

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COLOGNE, Germany -- German actor Ulrich Muhe, star of the Oscar-winning Stasi drama "The Lives of Others," has died. He was 54.

The veteran stage and film actor died Sunday of stomach cancer at his home in Walbeck, Germany.

Muhe's greatest success was his role as the gray, professional Stasi officer Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "Lives." The actor won wide acclaim for his performance and picked up a trophy case of awards, including best actor at the German and European Film Awards.

After "Lives" won the best foreign film Oscar in February, Muhe seemed on the cusp of an international career. His agency in Berlin confirmed they had been swamped with scripts and offers for Muhe, many from U.S. producers.

But Muhe's cancer had already begun to worsen.

After returning from Los Angeles, he had a major stomach operation. He stopped working, breaking off an engagement to play Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie in an upcoming feature film.

In an e-mail to The Hollywood Reporter, Henckel von Donnersmarck said that the original cause of Muhe's stomach ailment was anxiety resulting from his period as a conscript in the East German military. Assigned to patrol the Berlin Wall, Muhe, like all East German border guards, had shoot-to-kill orders for fugitives trying to escape to the West.

Henckel von Donnersmarck said Muhe's anxiety over the shoot-to-kill command led to major stomach problems and eventually cancer.

According to Henckel von Donnersmarck, the ailment resurfaced after an interview Muhe gave for a book on "Lives." Muhe came under attack in the German media for, as Henckel von Donnersmarck says, "daring to speak publicly about what happened to him in (the East German) dictatorship."

Despite his apparent anxiety, Muhe was no stranger to political controversy. Despite being one of East Germany's best-known theater actors, Muhe was an outspoken critic of the East German regime and helped organize a major anti-government demonstration in East Berlin in November 1989.

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Muhe became more involved in television and film. He became a regular collaborator with Austrian auteur director Michael Haneke, starring in "Benny's Video" (1992), "Funny Games" (1997) and "The Castle" (1997). In "Funny Games" and "The Castle," Muhe starred opposite his wife, Susanne Lothar.

Other notable supporting roles included ones in Costa-Gavras' holocaust drama "Amen" and Helmut Dietl's Oscar-nominated satire "Schtonk!" about the Hitler diaries scam of the early 1990s.

Muhe was well known to German TV viewers as criminal pathologist Robert Kolmaar in the German crime series "The Last Witness" for public broadcaster ZDF. In 2005, he won a German TV prize for the role.

German broadcasters changed their programming Wednesday to pay tribute to Muhe. ZDF will air back-to-back episodes of "The Last Witness," Tele 5 plans to broadcast "Funny Games" and pay TV channel Premiere, in addition to showing episodes of "The Last Witness," will air an interview with Muhe recorded late last year.

Muhe is survived by his wife and their two children as well as a daughter from his previous marriage to actress Jenny Grollmann.
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