Based on a True Story: TV Movie Portrays Dark Side of Scientology

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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.

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Photo Gallery: Escaping from Scientology

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.

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1. Quousque tandem abutere, Entertainers, patientia nostra?
Norberto_Tyr 02/03/2010
Just continue with the censorship and then cynically complain when people that does not suck the dummy, such as Bishop Williamson between many, dares not receiving you guys, the owners of the 'western free press'. Stop framing the comments with the cynical 'rule' 'off topic'. Not everyone is so stupid to swallow the hook and accept censorship disguised as 'digression prevention'. It is very clear that been 'on topic' means implicitly accepting the bias and the framing subliminally embedded in the article from the start. True free press have only one rule like war: 'the only rule is that there are no rules', otherwise 'free press' is just a business to make money as quickly as possible violating as many laws as possible without been caught.
2. "Scientology good--Germany Bad!"
fear_less 02/04/2010
Zitat von sysopA new German TV movie tells the story of a man who lost his wife and child 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. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,675298,00.html
Back in the 1990s, I remember John Travolta's appearance on the Tonight Show, where he was being quite vocal in criticizing Germany's restrictive policies against Scientology. The audience applauded and Leno nodded in support of Travolta's expressed disdain over the lack of "Freedom of Religion" in Germany. Hopefully, some of those people may since have changed their minds about the 'religiousness' and/or legitimacy of that organization. And KUDOS to SWR and Mr. Bergengruen for having the courage to make this film!
3. Wow
alsothis 03/15/2010
Zitat von Norberto_TyrJust continue with the censorship and then cynically complain when people that does not suck the dummy, such as Bishop Williamson between many, dares not receiving you guys, the owners of the 'western free press'. Stop framing the comments with the cynical 'rule' 'off topic'. Not everyone is so stupid to swallow the hook and accept censorship disguised as 'digression prevention'. It is very clear that been 'on topic' means implicitly accepting the bias and the framing subliminally embedded in the article from the start. True free press have only one rule like war: 'the only rule is that there are no rules', otherwise 'free press' is just a business to make money as quickly as possible violating as many laws as possible without been caught.
You sound scientologist.
4. Superb
Karin 03/15/2010
It is vital to share both sides. To showcase only one side be it positive or, negative does not provide for a solid frame set to make ones choice in any given subject matter. This organization obviously wishes to showcase only one side; the positive side, to establish more funds for their organization. Obviously, having negative information about their organization will hinder their ability to enrich their pockets. Which is perfectly understandable. But, shame on them. Besides, I hate cults. The day will be grand when one can say; "Good riddance".
5.
reinhardfreiheit 06/22/2010
There is no point in sharing anything when the other person (like Karin) categorizes people and even admits “I hate” those in that category. How is this not bigotry? You are proving my point by saying, that what they are doing is “perfectly understandable” and yet follow it by “But, shame on them”. Not that I am defending Scientology, they desserve their criticism. But for an intolerant person to attack somebody for being intolerant is hypocritic. When a government does it, and puts the power of the SECRET service behind it, does this not bring back memories of the term Gestapo? I contend it is more courageous to stand up to secret government action than to use other people’s money (taxes), to make a film under the veil of secrecy, that plays to the public opinion (of hate) for this organization. There were also films “based on true stories” about Jews being the root of all evil - by the same country’s government under an equally democratically elected chancelor in the 1930’s. If the government sponsored film maker decides that secrecy was necessary to prevent LEGAL action then we must prevent from allowing the rule of law. And if he says it is “based on a true story” it is just as a good as a jury verdict. Never mind that those who allege or imply crimes took no legal action and yet the almighty government is afraid of legal action from those who they present as the offenders, and which they classify as a “business”. What they are afraid? Is it that people may find out that there is “freedom of religion” in Germany only as long as you agree with the government, and either are christian or atheist.
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