Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Circle of Deceit

A pretty great film review, not kind to Schlörndorff.

Circle of Deceit (Volker Schlöndorff) 
Beirut, the war and the media. The white man’s burden wasn’t much fun to start with, the big white reporter’s burden is sinister! 
In 1980, the Cannes juries are in a real fix. Solomon-like, they cut their Palme d’or in two. Half a palm will go to Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and another half-palm to Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum). Two war films which create a lot of stir: two successes. 
Of the two it was rather hastily assumed that Coppola was the barbarian, the megalomaniac, the sorcerer’s apprentice. Moralists complained about a director hiring a country (the Philippines) to replay a war (the Vietnam war, just over) merely as a means of spinning out the flabby metaphor of the white man’s destiny, with Joseph Conrad (The Heart of Darkness) in support and Marlon Brando’s shaven skull as a closing gimmick. Schlöndorff, with his fitting, academic adaptation of Grass’s masterpiece, instead was seen as a figure of stricken conscience, a European auteur, dignified and cultured. 
On seeing Circle of Deceit, one observes that things must have been less simple, that, tormented by the desire to compete with Francis Ford Coppola, Schlöndorff wanted to bring the proof that he could be as good, as barbaric, as megalomaniac, and as daring and “swollen” (in the balloon sense) as Apocalypse Now. This proof could only be brought forward on a battlefield. Logically, it could only be an engagement between an American and a German. The war goes on. 
“War is everywhere” we read recently in Libération. It haunts the cinema. Real or imaginary, Sci-Fi or retro, it returns. It returns because it has always been a mine of easy scripts for lazy directors. It returns because we are heading towards a period of retreat into jingoism and panicky reterritorialisations. It returns because the war movie is traditionally the launchpad for technological innovation (like Dolby sound, which turns the spectator into a stunned guinea pig). It returns especially because in this world where the cinema, facing television, has lost the war, the Americans don’t want to lose the battle for the cinema. The titles speak volumes. Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Once more, filmed reality and the art of destroying this reality have a stake in common. Enough to make you shiver. 
Coppola had gone to replay the Vietnam war in a Philippine setting. Schlöndorff had to go one better. To film in half-ruined Beirut and to shoot red hot, against the background of war-torn Lebanon, a great new Conradian meditation on the white journalist’s burden; there it is: it’s called Circle of Deceit
What’s it about? A great German newspaper sends two reporters to Beirut. There’s Georg Laschen (this is Bruno Ganz, the idealist of the two; he has a soul, a fine one, and he suffers) and there’s Hoffman (this is the director Jerzy Skolimowski turned actor, the cynic of the two, not much bothered, wanting his exclusive). From camp to camp, from the Kataeb to the Fedayeen, from fear to indifference, from body reflexes (running) to states of mind (thinking), our voyeuristic duo discovers a dangerous but very lively Beirut. Investigative sorties and ploys, newsroom gossip, the sound of bullets and telex machines, slaloming through night street battles, ordinary and not so ordinary encounters: there’s nothing missing from this tableau vivant, which is filmed with genuine savoir-faire by Schlöndorff. 
There’s a woman in it, Ariane Nassar, a German woman in love with the Orient, alone with her desire to take advantage of the events to adopt a child (she’ll manage it too and have an affair with Laschen; this part is played by Hanna Schygulla). At the end of the film the journalist loses his bearings, confusing his personal war with the civil war, becoming a battlefield all of his own and trying to go far far away, to his very limits. Back in Germany, he botches the exclusive and the film fizzles out. 
The war in Lebanon is a backdrop. Very striking and always “beautiful”, even if we understand nothing about it, especially if we understand nothing about it. Aestheticism is very close to win the day. For this war is a civil war and a modern war; it goes into instant replay for the cameras, be they Schlöndorff’s. It’s a war “immediately mediatised”, a polaroid-war. Between those who stage the death of others and those who sell photos of those deaths to journalists, there is a continuous chain of images, a war bounty that winds up somewhere in a press agency. 
In a Beirut hotel, a Frenchman “in love with the Orient” (Jean Carmet) takes photos of a recent slaughter out of a briefcase and puts them up for auction. Children lead Laschen and Hoffman to a carbonised corpse. Everything has image potential, a second, now marketable death. What’s to be made of these images, Laschen wonders? What’s to be made of this chain where we necessarily feature, from one link to another: corpse, photograph, model maker, reader? What’s to be made of his fine soul? 
Godard already asked this question in a film now six years old. The film talked about the Middle East, was called Here and Elsewhere and it wasn’t a great success. Before photos of the victims of the Amman massacres of 1970, Godard allowed himself the black humour of wondering (in an aside) if these extras had been paid, and how much? The lesson was clear. When Godard and Schlöndorff began making films we could still think of war as merely obscene (Les Carabiniers, Coup de Grâce). Nowadays it has become completely pornographic. There are image dealers just as there are arms dealers. A filmmaker occupies a place somewhere in this chain. Does he know this? With Circle of Deceit, Schlöndorff has just found out. 
Godard halted the chain, blocked the spectacle, pondered over an image, imposed his voice on us, the chagrined voice over of a moralist. At the other end of the chain, like a good American, Coppola was coming to terms with the spectacle - with bunnies, surf and napalm, Wagner and helicopters, with this full-scale army theatre worthy of Abel Gance. 
Schlöndorff has neither the abrasive black humour nor the frenzied exhibitionism; the outcome is that he falls into the trap of the Dubonnet commercial, speaking the horror of the spectacle with the help of the spectacle of horror. He can’t invent any distance, he can’t do anything with that spectacle. 
The thing is that he comes from somewhere else. He comes from the realm of vague ideas and good intentions, of well-meaning left-wing reflexes. In The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, he had already taken on the workings of the gutter press and the violation of private life; this film – a success – had played no small part in forging his image as a major conscience of democracy. Fine. Fine, but facile. Facile because in the face of the lie one can always oppose the truth. Whereas in Lebanon, in this war where he has no business and where everyone wants to sell him something, things are less cut and dried. Schlöndorff comes out of it no better than his (bad) journalist hero. 
Georg Laschen cannot endure the real. That “real” where everything has become a message, where everyone has become a medium. He, the man who had scruples and convictions, decides to cross over to the other side, the side of existential experience. To be “like everyone”, Laschen decides to act like everyone, to cross over to the side of evil and shame. To become a saint. So during a bombardment he fortuitously stabs an old man, an Arab. He becomes the Lord Jim of the newspaper world. Anyway, his action is symbolically annulled by that of Ariane Nassar who “buys” (there’s no other word, the scene is pretty incredible) a malnourished kid. One more, one less; it’s war, nobody notices. 
You can see that the film is very ambitious. It’s a real answer to Coppola, the European version of Apocalypse Now. It’s the same question being asked: what crime do we issue from? From the European viewpoint this is against the background of the old colonial dialogue, which consists of exoticism and eroticism, sex and death wish, that the answer comes. The nth, rather self-conscious version of the “white man’s burden” scenario. 
Schlöndorff is very intelligent. He understands everything, but too late. He affects to have become a monster of cynicism, at the very moment when every ex-leftie third-worldist has realised that on this threshold of the Eighties, just wars in poor countries are primarily the poor backdrop for one’s own personal psychoanalysis, a wild couch. That there’s no one to save but oneself. This is where we’ve got to. So much so that the empty grandiloquent gesture with which Schlöndorff has us witness the horrors of war and the pornography of the media ends up by being part of this very pornography. 

First published in Libération on 29 October 1981. Reprinted in Ciné Journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinema, 1986. Translation adapted from the Cinema in Transit aborted project.


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