Cruise Film Gets German OK

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Frank Connor / Studio Babelsberg / AFP / Getty

Tom Cruise playing Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie

Germany appears to like Tom Cruise after all. Earlier this year, the government barred the U.S. actor from filming at a sensitive historical site apparently because of his membership in the Church of Scientology, which the German government considers a cult. But now officials have changed their minds. Cruise's film company is making a movie tentatively titled Valkyrie, about a German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler. The film can now include several scenes shot at the so-called "Bendler Block," a building complex in central Berlin where the officer was executed. Defense Ministry spokesman Thomas Raabe told reporters that a consideration of the film's script led to the decision. The film shows that "barbarism didn't triumph but led to the founding of a democratic Germany," he said.

The decision coincides with a general warming in public opinion toward the film project and toward the American star in Germany. But some critics are still not happy. Ursula Caberta, who is in charge of a government office that monitors Scientology in Germany, told TIME that the about-face is like "handing a trophy to Scientology," adding: "Tom Cruise is not just Tom Cruise, but a figurehead of an anti-constitutional organization, and he should be treated that way."

A spokesman for the filmmakers, United Artists Entertainment, flatly rejects the suggestion that Cruise's personal beliefs have anything to do with the film. In a statement, the film company also said that it is "very grateful" for the permission to film at the historic site — a place that they considered important to the project "symbolically, creatively and for the sake of historical authenticity."

The flap erupted in June, after the Defense Ministry announced that it was going to bar filming at the Bendler Block. A key reason behind the decision, according to officials at the time, was Cruise's affiliation with Scientology. In Germany, where the government provides assistance to organized religions, a 1995 court ruling determined that Scientology was a cult "masquerading as a religion to make money." Moreover, the film's subject is close to the hearts of many in the German military. Cruise is playing Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a square-jawed young Prussian colonel who tried to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, but who was executed after his plot failed. Von Stauffenberg was resurrected as a resistance hero to many who rejected the war and its legacy.

"Stauffenberg played an important role in the military resistance against the Nazi regime and in the Bundeswehr's [the post-war German military's] self-perception," a Ministry spokesman told TIME last June. "A sincere and respectable depiction of the events of the 20th of July and of Stauffenberg is therefore very much in Germany's interest. Tom Cruise, with his Scientology background, is not the right person for this."

Defense Ministry officials, denying any change in policy, now say that the original objection had less to do with the personal beliefs of Mr. Cruise than with fears that the filming would somehow damage the site, as on-location shooting for another film did three years ago. The change followed consultations between the film's writer, Christopher McQuarrie, and officials with the Ministry of Finance, which technically owns the site. After reviewing his script and visiting the site with the filmmakers, Defense Ministry spokesman Raabe said, the officials are now satisfied that both the story and the site would receive respectful treatment.

In an interview in August with the German magazine Bunte, Cruise said: "I bear a great responsibility to the Germans and to a man like Stauffenberg, who has such a deep significance," adding, "I feel it's important to show that there was also resistance within the Nazi ranks."

The decision to open the sensitive site to filming follows a general improvement in German press coverage of Cruise and his film. The mass circulation Bild regularly runs flattering photographs of Katie Holmes, Cruise's wife, and their little girl, Suri, strolling around in Berlin's zoo and visiting Berlin's celebrity polar bear cub, Knut, or strolling in the park. After visiting the set, Frank Schirrmacher, culture editor and co-publisher of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, argued that the movie "will change Germany more than any other movie of recent decades." He said the film would help underscore for a global audience that not all Germans endorsed Hitler. Schirrmacher also argued against the view that somehow "Americans were not up to the task" of portraying a German national hero and against criticizing someone else's religious beliefs "no matter how strange they may seem to us."

Even so, the project remains sensitive in Germany. When thousands of brown-shirted extras marched underneath giant swastikas at a parade ground in a western corner of Berlin, for example, a passerby filed an official complaint with the city for illegal display of Nazi propaganda. "What are the tourists going to think, not to speak of old people that were affected by the Nazi regime themselves?," Christian Bredlow, who is bringing the suit, told the Berlin daily Tageszeitung. Similar charges have been filed against the owners of other Berlin sites, including the Nazi-era Ministry of Finance, which are being used as a backdrop for the movie. Such criticisms are not going to stop the film from being made. It is scheduled for release in mid-2008. And thanks to the government's latest decision, the filmmakers are going to get all the authenticity they want.

—With reporting by Stephanie Kirchner