Update – March 11, 2010: The Scientology cult is trying to block this movie from airing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 together with his dog. When it came to a scene in the film when 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.
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