A new German TV movie tells the story of a man whose family life was destroyed after joining the Church of Scientology. The drama, which is based on a true story, was filmed in secret to prevent the organization taking legal action against the project.
Heiner von Rönn could reel off a sobering list of the people and things he has lost to Scientology. They include thousands of euros, 10 years of his life, his former wife, and both his children.
Fifteen years after leaving the organization, Rönn recently found himself confronted with his own past again, complete with all the terminology and threats from back then. He was on the set of a German TV production, where rooms in a Scientology office had been meticulously reconstructed. The TV drama, whose plot is inspired by real events in Rönn's life, deals with a family that falls apart because of the organization, which in Germany is regarded as a business rather than a church and is monitored by domestic intelligence agencies.
The team from Southwest Broadcasting (SWR), the public broadcaster in charge of the project, went about its work with an unusual degree of secrecy. Signs, screenplays and even the director's clapboard all bore a fake title, "The Dead Man in the Sound," in a bid to disguise the project's actual subject matter. Shooting for the film, which was produced for Germany's ARD consortium of public broadcasters, was kept completely secret. The filmmakers plan to make the project public for the first time this week, when they present the completed film on Tuesday. The drama will air on March 31 under the title "Until Nothing Is Left."
This will be the first German feature film about Scientology, the first drama to use the controversial belief system as evening entertainment. Has German television become more daring? Or has Scientology simply become more innocuous?
Bouts of Paranoia
In previous years, ARD has often broadcast movies about sensitive social issues such as the scandal involving the drug Thalidomide, which was known in Germany as Contergan. Now, though, the broadcaster has turned its attention to an organization which has a reputation for behaving ruthlessly toward its critics and journalists. But was ARD's paranoia during the film's production really justified?
Carl Bergengruen, head of TV movies for SWR, defends the secrecy with which the film was made. "Scientology kept trying to use a variety of methods to find out details about the project," he says. "We had reason to worry that the organization would use all the legal means at its disposal to prevent the film from being broadcast." And so the project was "kept under wraps for as long as possible for security reasons."
Nevertheless, the team was still subject to minor bouts of paranoia. On one occasion, there were reports on set that a man who acts as a kind of spokesperson for Scientology had been spotted. Another time, one of director Niki Stein's informants found that the trunk of his car had been broken into. He didn't think anything of the break-in until Stein's telephone rang -- and he remembered the notebooks he had left in the car's trunk. "We know you're making a movie about Scientology," said a voice on the other end of the line, before hanging up. When approached about the incident, Scientology denied any involvement.
Losing Track of One's Life
Although there were no other incidents of that kind, Rönn nevertheless felt a familiar sense of unease during filming. He's a quiet man, and he often looks to his current wife, Astrid, for help as he relates his stories. "That's how it was, in my opinion," she says, and answers questions on behalf of her husband.
She, too, used to be involved in Scientology. She left the organization with Rönn, while his first wife stayed -- together with the children.
Astrid von Rönn is better at keeping track of names, dates and events, while her husband Heiner sometimes comes across as someone who could easily lose track of his own life. Perhaps that helps to explain how fully grown adults could start believing in things like "thetans" (a concept in Scientology similar to the soul) and spending tens of thousands of euros on vitamins and so-called "auditing" sessions.
Rönn had never heard of Scientology before he was talked into taking a "communication course" in 1984. His wife at the time had already been involved with the organization for a few months, having been persuaded to join by her brother. It took more than 10 years before Rönn managed to get back out. By that time he was deeply in debt and socially isolated. His family life was in tatters. Rönn felt he wanted to give meaning to his experiences, at least in retrospect, by serving as a warning to others. That's how he ended up getting involved with the SWR project.
Fighting for Custody
The 89-minute film tells the story of a man who stumbles into Scientology and ends up fighting for custody of his child. The plot also includes a trip to a sort of disciplinary camp which is part of the organization's European headquarters, as well as the man's wife's sudden disappearance to a center in Florida and his daughter being sent to a secret boarding school.
ARD has invested €2.5 million ($3.5 million) into the film. SWR's Carl Bergengruen invested that sum in fastidious research, good actors and precise reconstructions of the locations.
Although some details of the story have been changed, it is astonishing to see just how far Rönn is willing to go in dealing with his own story. But now he is worried that someone might poison his dog or break his windows.
Until now, this kind of material was considered nearly impossible to film for legal reasons. Filmmakers saw it as practically certain that Scientology would go to court to stop the broadcasting of any movies that dealt with the organization. Instead, the German media was full of debates about whether the organization was compatible with the German constitution and horror stories about brainwashing by the group. There was nothing in between.
Now Bergengruen has bridged the gap. The impetus for the project was none other than actor and celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise. When Bergengruen saw Cruise being showered with respect as he won a prestigious German media award in November 2007, he decided he had had enough.
But there is another reason why this dramatic subject is now appearing on German TV screens as a piece of evening entertainment. Real-life controversies are generally only given the fictional treatment after a certain degree of distance to the subject has been reached. And it has already been several years since the most intense clashes between the German state and Scientology.
Nevertheless, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which monitors activities by the Church of Scientology in Germany, still considers the organization to be as danger as ever. In a 2004 ruling, an administrative court in Cologne ruled that there was good reason to "monitor" the organization "in particular using the methods of the intelligence services."
Heiner von Rönn was recently invited to watch a preview screening of the TV movie together with the film crew. Rönn sat in the front row of the projection room with his dog. When it came to a scene in the film where the protagonist sees his child for the last time, Rönn began to cry.
The movie ends with that scene. The Rönns' lives, however, go on. After the viewing, they drove home to their three-room apartment on the edge of Hamburg. Astrid von Rönn uses the children's former bedroom to store the laundry. That's the reality of their lives.