At the end, the German movie crew was as fatalistic as the Lebanese ex-militiamen who gladly slipped back into old street-fighting roles, as the Palestinian widows who refused to scream on cue when re-enacting burial scenes.
Five years after the fact, Volker Scholondorff and his crew wanted only, as he put it, "to get home safely" -- as if the Lebanese civil war, whose depressing decor that had come to film, were pursuing them the way it pursues the Lebanese themselves.
He considered himself lucky, perhaps miraculously so, to have filmed on both sides of a still-very-divided Beirut in his re-creation of five terrible days in January 1976, when this once most Western of Third World cities slipped seemingly forever from the ranks of the civilized.
Schlondorff, who won the Cannes Film Festival Prize in 1979 for his adaptation of Gunter Grass' World War II epic, "The Tin Drum," derived his Beirut film from "The Forgery," a novel by the late Nicholas Born about the impact of Beirut's violence on the hitherto unassailably dispassionate professionalism of a German reporter.
Long used to week-long assignments in which he varies the quotes and color to fit a basic pattern as he assimilates different cultures and people, the reporter comes to realize that what he writes is a forgery, a commercialized horror that perverts what is going on around him, and that his cold, under-the-microscope view of the world is meaningless. He breaks down, abandons his metaphysical self, ends up stabbling a man who may or may not be already a corpse, feels liberated.
The reporter, played by Bruno Ganz, also falls in love with a German Embassy employe, portrayed by Ganz's fellow German cinema star, Hanna Schygulla, who has embraced the values of the Orient as well as a Palestinian lover.
The reporter's venture into violence "liberates him," Schlondorff said in an interview, "makes him realize that he is no better than others, whereas in the past as a bystander he felt superior. Now he somehow feels more alive.
"He finally dares say 'I,' becomes exactly the opposite of a European intellectual and basically loves his guilt," the director added.
The reporter comes to contrast the "incredible need for security back home in Germany," Schlondorff said, "with his own realization of how easily people accept total insecurity in Beirut."
Eventually the girl, bored with the hero's self-discovery, goes back to her Palestinian lover, preferring to deal with the continuing violence that she apprehends will be Lebanon's lot long after the reporter has moved on.
On the surface, Schlondorff was lucky to get all warring clans to allow him to film at all, especially in the ruined downtown area, where an informal truce was arranged to let him work in both the Christian-Lebanese and Syrian-held sectors. Within weeks, the fighting escalated so much that the main crossing point in the divided city was closed down by gunfire.
Friends of the Christian phalangists who control part of Lebanon telephoned from Germany to say Born's novel was not favorable to their cause. Schlondorff finally was told to stop shooting on the Christian side, but only a day before he had planned to complete filming there.
The production's worst scare came only a week before filming here was finished -- and, in a way, it was the Germans' own fault. They had neglected to compensate the locals in Moslem West Beirut for their time and trouble -- a foolish bit of pennypinching that brought a predictable reaction: Local armed toughs threatened to disrupt filming.
Somewhat ironically for a director whose films are considered left-wing in Germany, Schlondorff called in Syrian peace-keeping forces, who are the nearest thing to police in that part of town. But for many Lebanese, here was a left-wing European calling in an occupation army to put down the locals or, as one Westernized Beiruti put it, "calling in the Gestapo."
More worrying to thoughtful Lebanese was the very theme of the film, which neglects the ugly fact that, for Lebanon, violence is not liberating, but a continuing daily reminder of a steady descent into hell.
"A forgery of the forgery," said one disgruntled Beiruti of the film, as if to underline disgruntlement at idle European fascination with Lebanon's distress.
Schlondorff readily admits that his main concern is to oblige Europeans to question -- and perhaps cherish -- their own values.
"I told the Lebanese they shouldn't expect the film to reflect their experience," he said. "It's a film of a certain period, and the Lebanese must make their own films."
But he found that filming Beirut was like "dancing on a volcano. The street life is so vivid. People enjoy the moment -- a little like Europe in World War II. Often the shots we planned didn't work out, but invariably we got what we came to call our 'daily gift,' a street scene which was much better."
Nonetheless, as the weeks took their toll, the crew in this French-German production financed by United Artists became increasingly on edge.
"The last week, the crew, which had not blinked when they were shot at in the early days of filming, started asking when we were leaving," Schlondorff said. "We all had butterflies in our stomachs."
Still, he is not the only filmmaker to see Beirut's advantages. Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, with "The Shout" and "Deep End" to his credit, combined a role in "The Forgery" with shooting 20 minutes of his own new film.
French director Yves Boisset is planning to shoot here too.
"The emirs of the Gulf provide the West with oil," one disillusioned Lebanese said, "and we seem destined to provide the West with the only thing we have left -- the decor for movies."