"Circle of Deceit" is a maddening tangle of unraveling threads. It interweaves a case of character breakdown with superficial political journalism and polemical bombast. The incoherent result exemplifies "topical" filmmaking at its wooziest.

Opening today at the K-B Janus, this new German import squanders a compelling locale--Lebanon--by dwelling on the murky psychological disorder of Georg Laschen, a correspondent on assignment for a newsmagazine. Played by Bruno Ganz, an actor tailor-made for projecting an image of handsomely haunted alienation, Laschen leaves a vaguely shaky marriage on hold to fly to war-torn Lebanon. Once there, he spends a few hectic days soaking up impressions that aggravate his despair and yearning over romance and political partisanship.

If he is in Beirut to research a story, he certainly neglects to return with one, although quite a gruesome story emerges around his own little escapades, which bottom out with a gratuitous act of murder. Laschen stabs an innocent bystander with his hidden hunting knife moments after discovering that his sweetie, an old flame named Arianne (Hanna Schygulla), the widow of a wealthy Lebanese merchant, has another lover, and a "native" at that.

I'm not sure whether director Volker Schlondorff is being faithful to the source material, a novel by the late German journalist Nicolas Born, or indulging some sentimental miscalculation of his own, but he comes absurdly close to endorsing and romanticizing Laschen's self-pitying style of degeneracy. Although it's Laschen who assumes a grotesquely false position in Lebanon, expecting the place to cure his psychological funk, this outrageous--and dangerous--vanity is never decisively rejected by the filmmaker. On the contrary, the movie's perspective is so out of whack that the wretched protagonist almost seems justified in resenting Lebanon for failing to redeem him.

In addition, the movie seems biased. The Christian factions are systematically abhorred and even ridiculed--as clowns, oligarchs or butchers--while the single encounter with a PLO brigade seems provisionally sympathetic. Laschen is shocked at the officer who orders summary executions but is still inclined to give preference for their side of things.

Since the film seems to humor Laschen's outlook, it's difficult to dissociate the filmmakers from what would seem an obvious ideological blind spot. Whatever he is, Laschen couldn't possibly be a reporter with any political perspective, or even curiosity.

If Schlondorff intended an ironic view of Laschen's mentality, he's certainly failed to make the signals clear to outsiders. If anything, "Circle of Deceit" seems calculated to inspire bewilderment from sequence to sequence. For example, there's a preposterous sexual interlude between the semi-estranged Laschens within the first few minutes: Suddenly overcome with early morning lust, they ignore the fact that their daughter has just stepped into the bedroom to say goodbye before leaving to meet the school bus. A scene so hilariously at odds with commonplace domestic reality can destroy the willing suspension of disbelief in a twinkling, and "Circle of Deceit" does nothing to correct the initial impression that it was made by--and perhaps for--people who had mysteriously mislaid their heads.

Although shot in an urban landscape ravaged by civil war, the movie is also peculiarly ineffective at suggesting a tense or explosive atmosphere. In "Missing," Costa-Gavras used Mexican locales as a convincing substitute for Chile at the time of the coup, and this faked background seemed the strongest aspect of the presentation--you could believe you'd stepped into a setting smoldering with peril. "Circle of Deceit" is set in an authentic war zone, and it's punctuated with scenes of riflemen and armored vehicles manuevering around dark streets, demolitions going off, shots being exchanged, reprisals being taken and corpses littering the streets, but the presentation looks faked and arbitrary. Ganz and Jerzy Skilomowski, cast as a photographer, dash around town during these nocturnal firefights, and the spectacle of them dodging shots and combatants seems to illustrate the movie's emerging identity as a feckless runaround.

The intention, presumably, was to portray journalists seeking both sensation and self-justification at the expense of an alien, war-torn culture. "He needs to be around death," Laschen says about one of the Lebanese he interviews. "Only a meek man could be so bloodthirsty." Although this judgment should apply to Laschen himself, "Circle of Deceit" proves such a muddled polemic that it actually seems to share its contemptible protagonist's delusions.