Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Volker Schlöndorff's harrowing tale of civil war in Beirut is as perfect a film as has been
made about an international hot-spot. Filmed in the city even as
fighting raged on all sides, it's a fascinating piece of modern truth that should be seen by anyone
with an open mind about how such wars - Beirut, Kosovo, perhaps soon Bagdad - operate.
The photography and acting is sensational and there's no partisan point of view beyond showing
the horrible facts. Kino's excellent disc presents Circle of Deceit beautifully and allows
the director to air his thoughts in two excellent video featurettes - one new, and one made 25
years ago in the real rubble of Beirut.
Hamburg Journalist Georg Laschen (Bruno Ganz,
Wings of Desire) is a terrible
husband at home but comes alive when he travels to war-torn Lebanon with photographer Hoffmann
(Jerzy Skolimowski). The Western press stays holed up in a luxury hotel in the mostly ruined
city, where a no-man's land separates Christian phalangists from Syrians, Palestinians and
pro-communist forces. After dark the city becomes a killing nightmare, but Georg and Hoffman
brave it in search of photos and a story. They get their wish by traveling to strongholds of
various fighting factions, warlords committed to atrocities and mass murder. Georg also renews
an affair with Arianna Nassar (Hanna Schygulla), a German widow of an Arab who lives in the war
zone and is trying to adopt a baby. Georg feels himself becoming more estranged from his cynical
associates who package the misery in words and photos for Western consumption. He
expresses this by putting himself at greater risk.
Bruno Ganz's honest reporter Georg has several changes of heart while in Beirut, but the one we
feel the most is when a "friendly" sniper offers to shoot an innocent victim, to give his cameraman
a scoop photo.
Georg refuses but a man is killed anyway; the "observer" can no longer pretend he's insulated from
the barbarism he covers. Georg later finds himself bidding for a black marketeer's (Jean Carmet)
atrocity photos, exactly the kind of violence-porn that the people at home want to see.
One of Georg's compatriots is biased toward the Christian side of the conflict even though
the atrocities are equally divided. Nobody threatens Georg personally but his
presence motivates his "subjects" to show how savage they can be.
Thinking he's finished with his wife Greta back in Hamburg (Gila von Weitershausen), Georg takes
up with old flame Arianna, who invites him to do what she has done, forget Germany and "become
an Arab." They drive around the risky city looking for a baby to adopt.
No orphan is left unclaimed by the factions, as all want to raise them as fighters. Some contemptuous
nuns finally give her a baby that might be brain-damaged. She starts to raise it on her own.
The ending has the only concession to expectations, when Georg returns to Hamburg and behaves
like a standard liberal idealist in "issue movies." Disgusted by his editors' enthusiasm to
exploit Beirut's agony, he quits, as a good rebel should.
What we remember most from Circle of Deceit are the truly amazing scenes shot right in the
no-man's land of shattered downtown Beirut. Volker Schlöndorff used real fighters (with real
ammo in their guns) and amid the total chaos his effects men had the luxury of blowing up anything they
wanted without having to worry about permits. The dozens of unpleasant corpses are concoctions
from Italian artists, thank God, but almost everything else we see in this "fictional" story happens
in the actual battlegrounds, sometimes during fighting, with potential combatants.
The film is not shot verité style but with cameras on tracks and cranes
to give Schlöndorff's desired "operatic" look to the drama. The verisimilitude is astonishing.
Right outside the hotel is the beginning of no-man's land. A ruined Holiday Inn with
artillery craters in its sides has smoke and fire belching from random windows.
For those concerned, the film is probably a hard R, with a steamy sex scene up front and very
convincing shots of burned and shredded corpses. It's a serious and extremely well-made film from
the maker of
The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum,
Death of a Salesman and Criterion's
upcoming The Tin Drum.
Kino's DVD of Circle of Deceit is a fine encoding of this great, almost miraculous German
film - miraculous in that nobody was killed during its making. The enhanced image looks fine on
a large monitor. Volker Schlöndorff appears in two featurettes. In the one shot during the filming
he explains the extreme conditions of production. How'd they get insurance? How could anyone
convince Bruno Ganz to stand still with extras pointing loaded guns at him and the possibility of
a real sniper picking him off?
The second featurette shows the director 25 years later repeating some of the
same information (Schygulla loved Lebanon and, like her character searched for a child to adopt) and
voicing his own conclusions about civil wars: Without a strong central government, the population
breaks down into fiefdoms controlled by warlords along political or religious
lines, with no law except the tyranny of the strong. To enforce the division and hatred
necessary to keep the struggle going (and insure funds from other countries) atrocities
are committed. The outside money is used to pay the fighters, who have no future except as guerilla
soldiers. And it just keeps going, in the case of Beirut for eleven years. Schlöndorff sees
the same pattern of civil war and endless carnage happening in Kosovo and now possibly in Iraq.
Also included is a generous selection of production stills.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Circle of Deceit rates:
Supplements: Two featurettes from 2004 and 1981, stills
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 22, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson