EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE a movie succeeds in interweaving the psychological and the political into a dense web that forces the viewer to get involved. The Deer Hunter did; it made Vietnam an integral element, never just a backdrop. Circle of Deceit, on the other hand, turns the rubble and bodies of present-day Beirut into mere mental furniture for its protagonist. It could just as well have been Angola, Iran or El Salvador. And as an Everymodernman, the protagonist could have been French or American as well as German.
Georg Laschen (Bruno Ganz) shares the moral dilemma of all journalists: how can one remain a bystander, a mere observer of violence and injustice? He has urges to get involved, to "do something" about the war he is recording. But his self-preoccupation prevents any political action. His journey to Lebanon began as an escape from a difficult marriage, and the country remains a kind of exotic, horrific Disneyland in which he attempts to lose himself.
But he is not the only refugee from peace and prosperity. A sleazy French dealer in arms and war photographs indicts all the journalists holed up in the atrociously modern hotel that lies in a shifting no-man's-land: "This our voyage en orient. But the Orient doesn't exist. It is a creation of the west. And all this--this is the fall of Western civilization." The guerillas all speak French or English; clad in olive drab fatigues, they play classical pieces on a Steinway ornamented with a machine gun. Many have spent time in Europe. The most repulsive character in the movie is a suave French-speaking member of the Christian aristocracy whose hypocrisy glares through a greasy patina of European culture. The journalists talk among themselves in a glib polyglot babble that reduces their different Western nationalities into a single category as undefined and unarticulated as the Western idea of "the Middle East."
Laschen's assigned sidekick, a good-time Charley photographer who has qualms neither visceral nor moral about making a profession of photographing severed limbs, deals with the situation by not thinking about it. Laschen, mouth he claims, "I don't write what I think. I write what I see. It doesn't matter what I think," starts to believe that maybe it does matter. He realizes the outrage of bidding against a rival reporter for photos of carnage, but he does it anyway. He is genuinely disturbed when he realizes the execution of a family has been staged specifically for him. But his preoccupations with his own family, and now with a German widow in Beirut drown out the outside world.
Hanna Schygulla as his lover is as enigmatic as ever, replacing her, more familiar vamping with a staunch mother figure. An evidently barren woman who has inexplicably taken Lebanon as her own country, her sole desire is to adopt a native child. Yet she evokes no more sympathy exudes no more warmth than Laschen. In fact, while Laschen becomes increasingly anesthetized by the violence she remains consistently numb.
UNFORTUNATELY, IN DEPICTING the dulling of Laschen's senses, the film itself becomes dull. After the initial horror wears off, unrelenting violence is boring. Hardened to atrocity along with the protagonist, the viewer is forced to become amoral in order to empathize. Nothing is less satisfying. The film attaches no guilt to apathy, creating a loss of sensation without sentiment for the loss. In providing the emotional exercise for the audience, Schlondorff's fatalistic approach to indifference falls flat.
The posters for the movie suggest a tale of suspense and intrigue, portraying Ganz and Schygulla crawling along what seems to be a dark passageway. Actually, they are dragging themselves along the carpeted floor of her mansion into the bedroom where they will fiddle as Beirut burns. There is no suspense, no tension in this film only the sustained drone of suppressed angst. Circle of Deceit lacks the mythic color and intensity of Schlondorff's best-known film The Tin Drum. Where the bizarre fantasy of The Tin Drum terrifies and disgusts, the efficient realism of Circle of Deceit fades into ennui. Both movies bear Schlondorff's unmistakable brass-knuckle touch in the scenes of gore and brutishly cold sex, which he portrays with neither relish nor repugnance. His films are not for the weak of stomach. Nor for the warm of heart.