A musical prodigy, East Prussian-born Armin Mueller-Stahl was a noted concert violinist while still in his teens. Mueller-Stahl turned to film acting in East Berlin in 1950, later launching a 25-year stint as a repertory performer at Theater aum Schiffbaurdamm. The winner of the GDR State Prize for his film work, Mueller-Stahl became persona non grata with the communist regime in 1977, due to his activism in protesting government suppression of performing artists. He relocated to the West in 1980, where he recouped his film stardom in such productions as Fassbinder's Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982) and Agnieszka Holland's Angry Harvest (1985), winning the Montreal Festival "Best Actor" prize for his performance in the latter. Most American viewers first became aware of Mueller-Stahl through his portrayal of Russian general Samanov in the controversial miniseries Amerika (1987). He then gained perhaps his greatest recognition to date by U.S. film fans for two radically different characterizations: aging Nazi war criminal Mike Laszlo in Costa-Gavras' The Music Box (1989) and Jewish grandpa Sam Krischinsky in Barry Levinson's Avalon (1990). He spent the rest of the decade working steadily in Hollywood and abroad, appearing in such films as Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth (1991), The X-Files (1998), and Jakob the Liar (1999). In 1996, he earned particular acclaim and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of pianist David Helfgott's domineering father in Scott Hicks' Shine.
He appeared in 2000's Mission to Mars, and followed that up the next year in The Long Run. He was away from screens for three years, reappearing in Bustin' Bonaparte and The Dust Factory, before landing the role of the scary patriarch of a crime family in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. He appeared in the highly-successful Dan Brown adaptation Angels & Demons.