Los Angeles, USA - Scientology's image has taken a flurry of hits in the past six months. First, a high-profile member -- Oscar winning "Crash" director Paul Haggis -- defected. Then former employees alleged they were defrauded and treated like slaves by the church. And now Tom Cruise and Co. face a new threat from across the Atlantic.
Later this month, German television is set to broadcast a 90-minute movie that portrays L. Ron Hubbard's 50-year-old church as corrupt, divisive and totalitarian. Unsurprisingly, Scientologists want it banned.
"Until Nothing Remains" ("Bis nichts mehr bleibt") -- due to air in a prime-time slot March 31 -- tells the story of a family torn apart by its involvement with Scientology. It's loosely based on the true-life story of ex-member Heiner von Rönn. During his 10 years with the organization, he says he handed the church tens of thousands of dollars for vitamins and "auditing" sessions. But von Rönn paid an even higher price when he quit the movement in the mid '90s: He lost contact with his wife and two children, who kept the faith.
German Scientology bosses say public TV network ARD has deliberately set out to damage the church and insult its followers with the movie. At a preview of "Until Nothing Remains" in the northern city of Hamburg, church members handed out leaflets accusing the broadcaster of attempting "to create a mood of intolerance and discrimination against a religious community."
"What they're planning to show is a violation of ARD's programming guidelines," church spokesman Jürg Stettler told the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. "The station is required to support religious tolerance, not the opposite." He added that the church was examining how it could legally halt the broadcast, and that a counter-documentary, highlighting the movie's flawed claims, was in the works. "The truth is precisely the opposite of what ARD is showing," Stettler said. "[We want to] spread our own side of the story."
While the church claims to be a victim, ARD said the organization actually organized a campaign of harassment against its film crew. Although the subject of the film was obscured during shooting -- scripts, signs and clapboards all bore the fake title "The Dead Man in the Sound," and locations were kept secret -- they say the church somehow uncovered the flick's true subject.
The crew told Der Spiegel magazine that they believe they were tailed by a Scientology spokesman during filming. Notebooks were also stolen form the trunk of the director's car. Soon after that theft, he was contacted by an anonymous caller who declared, "We know you're making a movie about Scientology," and then hung up. And the broadcaster says it was inundated with calls and e-mails from the organization. The church has denied any involvement.
"We're not dealing here with a religion, rather with an organization that has completely different motives," ARD's program director Volker Herres said at the film screening. "Scientology is about power, business and building up a network. Its lessons are pure science fiction. It's no religion, no church, no sect."
The almighty fight over the film reflects a wider ongoing struggle between the church and the German state, which has long regarded Scientology as a money-making wheeze rather than a genuine religion. Its activities are closely monitored by the country's security service, which -- because of the desire to stop Nazi-like movements ever grabbing power again -- keeps an eye on all secretive organizations suspected of harboring anti-democratic ambitions. (The church has repeatedly asserted it has no political intentions in lawsuits brought against the government.).
Anti-Scientology sentiment last flared up in Germany early last year, with the release of the World War II movie "Valkyrie." Critics accused the organization of trying to woo the German public by casting card-carrying Scientologist Tom Cruise in the role of heroic Wehrmacht officer Claus von Stauffenberg, who organized a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler in 1944.
Authorities were so concerned that the action movie could act as a recruiting tool that they placed a warning poster outside the organization's Berlin headquarters during Cruise's promotional tour of the country. It announced that the local government expressed "its opposition to the activities of the Scientology sect in this district and in Berlin, and hopes that responsible parties in Berlin will watch the Scientology sect with a critical eye in the near future."
Several million pairs of critical eyes are sure to be focused on the church later this month when "Until Nothing Remains" hits the small screen. And if the movie doesn't quite succeed in persuading viewers of the alleged dangers of Scientology, its makers hope a documentary due to be aired after the film could hammer home the message. It's title? "Until Nothing Is Left: How Scientology Destroys Human Life."