Tom Cruise starts filming anti-Hitler drama amid German uproar

Media Corp News/July 20, 2007

Berlin: Filming started on Thursday on a movie starring Tom Cruise as the real-life mastermind behind a plot to kill Adolf Hitler, amid German grumbling about the high-profile Scientologist playing a national hero.

A spokeswoman for Babelsberg Studios outside Berlin told AFP that director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") had begun shooting the US$80 million (58-million-euro) production "Valkyrie" on location.

Media reports said the production team spent the first day, on the eve of the 63rd anniversary of the assassination attempt, at a disused airport southeast of the German capital.

Because the region was the site of one of the worst final battles of the war, it has been combed for unexploded munitions that could pose a danger to the cast and crew.

The German press has given blanket coverage to the film but some officials have baulked at the choice of Cruise to play the Nazi officer Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, who was executed by firing squad after the failed bomb attack of July 20, 1944.

They cite the actor's ties to the Church of Scientology, which is viewed here as a commercial outfit that exploits vulnerable people, as making him unfit to play a German martyr.

"Stauffenberg stood for the most noble motives a person can have," Frank Henkel, the general secretary of the Berlin chapter of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, told rolling news channel NTV.

"I consider Tom Cruise as a self-proclaimed ambassador of Scientology inappropriate for the role."

The remarks came after sharp criticism from a number of politicians and even Stauffenberg's eldest son Berthold, 72, who has told the press that Cruise "should keep his hands off my father."

A spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology centre in Berlin, Sabine Weber, said the furore over Cruise's religion was discriminatory.

"The whole discussion about the faith or membership in a group of anyone should play no role in decisions of this kind," Weber said.

Germans working in Hollywood have rushed to defend Cruise, saying that the criticism of the star's religion made Germany look provincial and chauvinistic.

A few commentators have noted the irony that Germany's suspicions about Scientology's allegedly "totalitarian" methods are rooted in the lessons learned from its Nazi past, while US critics point to what they call a national streak of religious intolerance.

A spokesman for the finance ministry, which is responsible for granting permission to film at federal buildings, insisted on Thursday that Berlin had no problem with the production, noting that Singer had won approval for all the sites on his wish list with just one exception.

He said the Bendler Block, the former army headquarters in Berlin and now a memorial to the German resistance, where Stauffenberg was shot by the Nazis, would remain off-limits.

But he said Scientology had nothing to do with the decision.

"You can assume from the fact that we approved all the film location requests but one - for reasons that all those involved consider reasonable - that the beliefs of the actors are completely irrelevant," he said.

The spokesman acknowledged that other film crews had been allowed to use the Bendler Block in the past but said experience had shown that those decisions had been "mistaken."

To underline Berlin's unwillingness to create a transatlantic rift over the movie, the federal film board has agreed to subsidise the production to the tune of 4.8 million euros (US$6.6 million).

Stauffenberg occupies a hallowed place in the country's post-war consciousness as proof that there were Germans willing to give their lives to stop Hitler.

Although he was an ardent Nazi in the early years, he realised by 1944 that Germany was entrenched in a disastrous war that Hitler had no intention of ending.

Stauffenberg and fellow conspirators planted a bomb under a table in Hitler's East Prussian headquarters, the "Wolf's Lair," in today's Poland.

But the Fuehrer escaped, though he was injured, because an officer had moved the briefcase containing the explosives behind a sturdy leg of the oak table.

Stauffenberg and other officers were rounded up that same night and executed.

The filming of "Valkyrie," after the code name for the assassination plot, is scheduled to continue until October 31 with the movie due for release next year.

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