Armin Mueller-Stahl was born on December 17, 1930, in Tilsit, then part of East Prussia, a former German territory that today is part of Russia. After his father died during WWII, his mother, a doctor, brought up her five children on her own.

Mueller-Stahl first studied musicology and violin performance, but dropped musical pursuits after receiving his degree, as the life of a concert violinist wasn’t to his liking. He enrolled in a drama school in East Berlin but was reportedly dismissed due to “lack of talent.”

Mueller-Stahl nonetheless continued to pursue acting, landing smalls roles here and there. In 1952 he received his first permanent engagement as an ensemble member at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. He soon after moved to the Volksbühne, one of East Berlin’s most prestigious theaters.

Mueller-Stahl’s stardom quickly grew. He appeared onstage and in cinema and East German TV films, becoming one of the country’s best-loved and best-paid actors.

“There wasn’t the same fuss about stars that there was in the West,” he said later in interviews. “But there were times when I had a laundry basket full of autograph requests.”

A still from the DDR movie 'Tödlicher Irrtum' with Armin Mueller-Stahl

One of the DDR films Mueller-Stahl appeared in was the Western ‘Tödlicher Irrtum,’ literally ‘lethal mistake’

Famous in both West and East Germany

Mueller-Stahl’s fame also reached West Germany through films including Jacob the Liar (1974) and Naked among Wolves (1963). Both works deal with Germany’s Nazi past — a theme that would remain important to the actor throughout his life.

Mueller also proved not afraid to criticize East German politics. In the early 1970s he played a Stasi agent in the East German TV series Das unsichtbare Visier (‘The Invisible Visor’) — a sort of “socialist anti-James Bond” — but he quit the show when it grew too political.

In 1976, he also added his signature to a resolution by prominent East German artists protesting the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, a regime-critical musician. From then on, Mueller-Stahl struggled to land any roles in East Germany, where the communist government closely controlled cultural industries.

In 1980, Mueller-Stahl, his wife and his son Christian emigrated to the West. One year later, he received the lead role in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Lola, having caught the famous West German director’s attention with his previous work. The film, regarded as a German classic, marked the beginning of the actor’s second career that would see him work with well-known European directors such as Andrzej Wajda, Bernhard Wicki, Axel Corti und Agnieszka Holland.

Armin Mueller-Stahl and Barbara Sukowa in a still from 'Lola'

Mueller-Stahl co-starred alongside Barbara Sukowa in ‘Lola,’ directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Hollywood success

But the actor soon needed new challenges, and he headed to the US before the end of the decade. He made his Hollywood debut in Music Box (1989), by established director Costas-Gravas, about a Nazi death squad in WWII. It was a display of intellectual determination, as Mueller-Stahl had not mastered English.

His international acclaim grew with subsequent films that included Barry Levison’s Avalaon (1990), in which Mueller-Stahl played the head of a Polish-Jewish immigrant family in the US, and Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991), an indie film that became a cult favorite and featured the actor as an New York taxi driver from East Germany.

Mueller-Stahl co-wrote the screenplay for, directed and starred in Conversation with the Beast (1996), about a 103-year-old man claiming to be Adolf Hitler who is interviewed by an American historian trying to figure out if he is the actual Nazi leader.

In the early 2000s he appeared as the famous German writer Thomas Mann in the German TV hit Die Manns Ein Jahrhundertroman (“The Manns — A Novel of the Century”). The show won best movie at the 2003 International Emmy Awards, and Mueller-Stahl’s portrayal earned him a German Grimme award, Germany’s top TV prize.

Armin Mueller-Stahl in a still from the film 'Avalon'

Mueller-Stahl played the patriarch of Jewish American immigrant family in the film ‘Avalon’

Painting and maing music at 90

Though he spent many years living in Los Angeles, he is currently unable to travel back to the US. However, he has kept his house in the northwest German state of Schleswig-Holstein. It wasn’t until 2011 that he was able to return to his hometown of Tilsit, today called Sovetsk.

Mueller-Stahl standing in front of some of his paintings

Mueller-Stahl turned to painting in his later years, even exhibiting works at a Dresden show in 2014 (above)

In recent years, Mueller-Stahl has turned down film roles and instead dedicated himself to other arts, namely painting and his early passion, music. He released a CD of his own songs in 2011. It is his paintings and drawings, not his films, that he expects to last forever, he jokingly told DW in a 2015 interview.

“Whoever merely functions, denies himself life’s adventures,” he said — a life philosophy that has accompanied Mueller-Stahl for 90 years.

This article was adapted from German by Cristina Burack.