The political fault lines that snake through Volker Schlöndorff’s best films reached near cataclysmic levels of tension in Circle of Deceit (1981), set during the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. But to label the movie political would be inaccurate: As in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and The Tin Drum, an outsider peers into the machinery of organized terror—and eventually gets sucked in. Bruno Ganz plays a war journalist who travels to bombed-out Beirut to write a feature but also to escape a ravaged marriage. Merging foreign upheaval with domestic implosion, Circle of Deceit aspires to the humanist as well as the humanitarian, and ultimately achieves both.
No sooner does Ganz’s Georg check in to his hotel than a cluster bomb rocks the building—though the bigger shock is that no one seems to care, least of all the gaggle of seasoned correspondents. Whether hawking photographs of the dead or striding through downtown Beirut with an air of invulnerability, these pampered parasites are Western hubris incarnate. A facile critique perhaps, and possibly a hypocritical one, given that the movie was filmed on location, often in the midst of what look like actual skirmishes. But the screenplay soon assumes a larger perspective. With Christians fighting Muslims, and Muslims fighting Muslims, Lebanon is a landscape of dizzying factional permutation. Cynicism becomes contagious. One sniper says to Georg after offing a pedestrian, “It’s for you that we’re fighting for.”
Circle of Deceit tends to wallow in its own watery despair—from the downpours that bookend the story to Ganz himself, perpetually on the verge of tears. Still, the visual spareness always captivates, no more so than when the camera isolates a flak-jacket-less Georg as he navigates Beirut’s infernal streets, his feet on autopilot. The titular circularity gradually takes shape: Georg tries to leave Beirut but finds he can’t. Drawn to destruction, he discovers that regarding the pain of others often seems less a profession than an enervating and ultimately lethal addiction.