How German Actor Armin Mueller-Stahl Went From Being Kicked Out of Acting School to Winning a Golden Bear (Berlin)

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German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl has had careers – and success – in three different countries under three very different systems. First in communist East Germany, where he was a heartthrob and matinee idol, then in West Germany where he worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder in films including Lola and Verona Voss, and, finally, in Hollywood, where he has worked with directors such as David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Ron Howard and Barry Levinson. More recently, Mueller-Stahl has launched two new careers: as a painter and as a singer. Before accepting a Golden Bear for his life's work at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Armin Mueller-Stahl took time to sit down with THR's German Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough to talk about the phenomenal story of his life and work.

The Hollywood Reporter: Is it true that you were kicked out of acting school?

Armin Mueller-Stahl: Yes. That's true. After the first year. They thought I was too theoretical and not practical enough. And it was my fault, as well. I was intractable.

THR: But you got a job then in the theater. This was when Bertold Brecht was also working in East Berlin. Did you try and join his ensemble?

A M-S: I wanted to, but I was too 'West' for him. I was the Western playboy type and he wanted proletarian worker types for his theater. But I watched him work. I attended rehearsals and saw how he directed actors.

THR: How did you make the transition to film and TV?

A M-S: It was inevitable. TV first turned me down, too. I'd spent 25 years on stage at Berlin's Volksbuhne and when I was, East German television didn't want me at first. I did test auditions but, again, I was too Western for them. Not proletarian enough. I was a 'Western, descendant type.' Then I was cast by Frank Beyer for (feature film) Five Carriages. Then the TV types came back. Suddenly, I wasn't too Western anymore but just a good actor. And it went from there.

THR: Why did you leave and escape to the West?

A M-S: My break came in 1975. I was doing a TV series, which was a huge hit – it was called Das Unsichtbare Visier and it was a sort of East James Bond. But the scripts were getting worse and more propagandistic and I said I wouldn't do it anymore. I knew that was it with me and East Germany. It was my divorce. I was banned from acting in the GDR and finally, in 1979, they let me leave for the West.

THR: You were 50 years old at the time and didn't know anyone in the West German film business. You had to start all over again.

A M-S: I did a TV movie in the West in 1979 but I had to wait a year for it to come out, and people waited until they saw it to talk to me. They wanted to see who is this guy from the East? When it came out, the offers came in. (Rainer Werner) Fassbinder called me and said: 'I want to make movies with you, I did Lola and others. And one offer followed another.

THR: When did Hollywood start calling?

A M-S: I made two movies in the same year – (Agnieszka Holland's) Angry Harvest and (Istvan Szabo's) Colonel Redl -- and they were both nominated for Oscars. My wife and I took the little bit of money we had and flew to Hollywood, just to see what happens. The reviews were excellent. And that opened a door to America. Costra Gavras called – for Music Box -- and, in the same year, Barry Levinson with Avalon. In the one I play a Hungarian Nazi, the other a Polish Jew.

THR: But you didn't even speak English at the time!

A M-S: My English is still very poor. At the start I always had to speak with accents, Yiddish or Russian, and I used the accents to cover my own German accent.

THR: You've worked under three very different film systems. How do the three compare – Hollywood with West Germany with East Germany?

A M-S: It's all a question of the money. In Hollywood, you have the money to shoot as much as you want, all the takes you want. In East Germany, we'd do one take because we didn't have the money for more film stock. In West Germany, it was these small auteur films and money was tight everywhere. You didn't get a trailer, you'd get a chair. And sometimes not even a chair. But the work is the same everywhere. A camera is a camera. In Hollywood maybe you work with five cameras, but in the end, it's the same.