Only a Swedish film could take itself more seriously than "Circle of Deceit," the impenetrable, imponderable story of a German journalist's mid-life crisis, staged against the backdrop of ravaged Beirut. The film, directed by Oscar-winner Volker Schlondorff, is as dense as stone strudel.

Bruno Ganz stars as Georg Laschen, a guilt-ridden foreign correspondent who hates weekend soccer, quick sex with his loving liebchen, his kids, his job, life, birth, death, infinity. So to cleanse his bourgeois soul, he takes a Lebanon assignment, hoping to find meaning in that sad civil war.

In Beirut, gasoline-soaked corpses burn in the foul, rubble-choked avenues. The Holiday Inn, pockmarked from mortar shells, remains the most unsettling monument in this demented city, a battlefield since April 1975.

Yet Laschen's safe, modern hotel room overlooks the sea, which laps two huge swimming pools. Children sunbathe and downstairs a couple is wed; champagne flows and turbaned scions watch Ann- Margret strut on a sheik-size TV screen. Laschen takes a piece of wedding cake from the bride and goes outside to watch the war, which is fought between dusk and dawn. It is a dark campaign, one that reflects the neurotic doings in Laschen's mind.

Early in the film, he tries to communicate his crisis to his wife, Greta (Gila Von Weitershausen), by writing letters suggesting they live apart -- the better to stay together. He then either mails or doesn't mail them. Who can say? The editing, at times, is confusing, and in early frames we're not sure where Laschen is, either mentally or physically. Unnecessary flashbacks further blur the filmmaker's apocalyptic vision, which is beefed up with preachy dialogue. For instance, a seller of the goods of war -- munitions and photographs of the charred and maimed -- reminds us that the folks back home, guilty bastards, too, like "dirty pictures to look at in clean places."

Carnage is the film's focus. And what Laschen calls "the horror of a German gentleman" seems incidental to Schlondorff's need to document. But plot there must be. Thus, Laschen spends most of the film fretting, failing to file his stories and, thus, antagonizing his photographer, who usually speaks in English, though he is German (the film is subtitled where necessary). Laschen also takes up with the widow of a rich Arab, Arianne Nassar (Hanna Schygulla), who is obsessed with her adopted country and the need to adopt a child.

Eventually, Laschen is hooked. He wants Arianne, not Greta; war, not soccer; pita bread, not gluten. He stays behind when fellow journalists leave Beirut, still searching for a cure for writer's block and the middle- age crazies. In the end he learns what people in their early 20s and mid-50s already know -- that if you have to ask the meaning of life, you can't afford to. CIRCLE OF DECEIT Opens Friday at the K.B. Janus.