Armin Mueller-Stahl didn't have to do a lot of research to play a former East German Stasi officer in the thriller "The International," which opens in theaters today.
The 78-year-old actor, who possesses vibrant Paul Newman-esque blue eyes, was well acquainted with the secret police of the former socialist state. He lived under their repressive rule until 1980, when he emigrated to West Germany.
A concert violinist in East Germany after World War II, Mueller-Stahl made his acting debut on stage in 1953 and then became a film star with "The Secret Marriage." One of the country's biggest stars, Mueller-Stahl later appeared in such features as the Oscar-nominated 1975 drama "Jacob the Liar."
"I had a lot of freedom even in East Germany," he said over the phone from Germany, where he has three museum exhibitions of his drawings and paintings. "I was very popular. That made me secure to a certain extent. Popularity was sort of my bodyguard."
It wasn't until a few years ago when he got the opportunity to read his Stasi files that Mueller-Stahl discovered that his best friend had informed on him.
"He told everything to the Stasi," Mueller-Stahl said, his voice still tinged with pain. "He was a lawyer. He couldn't figure out if he was more friends to me than to the system. Then he decided to be more friends to the system."
Mueller-Stahl's career came to a standstill in 1976 when he signed the Biermann Resolution, which protested the denaturalization of poet Wolf Biermann. "The phone was quiet for three years, so I sat down and wrote a book," he said. "The government wanted to get rid of me because I was liked by the audience. They didn't want me around anymore."
His experience in the former East Germany, said "International" director Tom Tykwer, served him well when playing Wilhelm Wexler, a former communist stalwart now working as a nattily dressed assassin for a powerful Luxembourg international bank involved in various nefarious schemes. Wexler meets his match in a determined, morose Interpol agent played by Clive Owen.
"The whole background of his experience . . . and how much he suffered there influenced the way he portrayed the character and gave him the depth and this twist that makes him also sympathetic and vulnerable and interesting," said the director.
"I think [Wexler's] a very tough character," said Mueller-Stahl, who received an Oscar nomination for 1996's "Shine," and has appeared in such films as "Music Box," "Avalon," Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Lola" and David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises." "He was a Stasi officer who knew all of his enemies. He was protecting the system of communism, but by the time the wall came down he was already finished with the system because he knew the system didn't work. He's this old, gray guy at the end of his life. He's pale and not very healthy anymore. I never discovered all of his subtleties.
"I never played myself my whole life," Mueller-Stahl added. "When people look at me, they think they are not quite sure if he's good or if he's bad. I like secrets. As an actor you have to protect your secrets."