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article imageAnother Side Of Armin Mueller-Stahl: As A Painter

By Douglas Sutton     Dec 17, 2001 in Lifestyle
LUEBECK (dpa) - German TV viewers are becoming reacquainted with the artistry of actor Armin Mueller-Stahl these days in a 3-part docu-drama about writer Thomas Mann and his family, but visitors to Mann's birthplace city of Luebeck are getting a new perspective about Mueller-Stahl - as a painter.
"Armin Mueller-Stahl - Malerei und Zeichnung" is the name of the exhibition of paintings and drawings by the versatile actor whose own biography has more than a few parallels with that of Thomas Mann.
The exhibition, being held in both the Heinrich and Thomas Mann Centre, more popularly known as the Buddenbrookhaus, and in a former medieval monastery, the Burgkloster, a few blocks away, is the first time that he is publicly showing his talent as a visual artist.
The works range from impressionist-style water colour and oil paintings, including a striking self-portrait in oil, to pen-and-ink sketches which Mueller-Stahl often makes to bide his time during breaks in shooting on the sets of film and TV productions.
"The correlation between acting and sketching is limited, but still useful," the actor, who turns 71 on December 17, noted. "The art of acting is first observing people, and then acting out that observation.
"But when you are watching, for example, an old man and see how his hand is trembling, that is something you can't draw. But you can draw his posture," Mueller-Stahl said. "This can help you later on as an actor to be able to remember what you have watched."
The paintings and sketches in the exhibition not surprisingly draw largely on Mueller-Stahl's experiences as an actor. There is for example a painting of a group scene on the set of the Jim Jarmusch film "Night On Earth" in which the German actor played a comically and hopelessly inept taxi driver on Manhattan island.
There are sketches of such film directors as Steven Spielberg and the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Bernhard Wicki, as well as of Heinrich Breloer, director of the TV docudrama about the Mann family.
And there is a humourous sketch of a consternated-looking Thomas Mann titled "How Thomas Mann looked when he learned that I was playing him" - a reference to Mueller-Stahl's role of the giant of 20th-Century German literature in Breloer's production.
The German actor said he got his first training in drawing from his grandmother while he was growing up in Tilsit in what was then Germany's province of East Prussia, now belonging to Poland.
"My mother was also a good painter, while an aunt of mine was a friend of sculptress Kaethe Kollwitz," he said. "She was excellent in drawing and she was the one who gave me my first lessons in perspective and proportions."
For Mueller-Stahl, who now makes his home in Los Angeles, the choice of Luebeck as the venue for his first public exhibition is a natural one, saying he has more than just a passing affinity with the Baltic Sea city.
His own East Prussian roots were on the Baltic Sea, but he said that in researching his family ancestry, he found records dating back to the late 1500s - in Luebeck - giving him something in common with writer Thomas Mann.
Without stretching the parallels with Thomas Mann too far, the actor can also point to his own political persecution. A star in the former communist East Germany's film and stage acting scene, Mueller- Stahl became a non-person overnight when he signed a petition in 1976 protesting the expulsion of political folksong artist Wolf Biermann.
With the communist authorities bearing down hard, no further acting roles were offered him, and in 1980, Mueller-Stahl went westwards - to West Germany - to start what would become the next two chapters in his film acting career, in Europe and then America.
"Better to have a break in your career than one in your backbone," he said about the political risk he took in joining in the Biermann protest action.
Much later on, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communist East Germany, Mueller-Stahl discovered in the files which the state secret service "Stasi" had kept on him that people he had regarded as his friends had actually been spying on him.
The decade of the 1980s he spent performing in European films for such directors as Fassbinder, Patrice Chereau, Andrzej Wajda and Istvan Szabo, and this gained him the attention of American film producers and directors.
Around the age of 60, he made it to Hollywood, the culmination of his American career so far being his role as the father of pianist David Helfgott in the film "Shine" in 1996. Mueller-Stahl was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor.
"Thomas Mann kept going westwards," Mueller-Stahl said, referring to the writer's exile from Nazi Germany, most of which he spent in the United States, first in Princeton, New Jersey and later in Los Angeles.
"Now I am living only three streets away, in Pacific Palisades, from where Thomas Mann once lived."
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