What happened in Beirut in the 1980s

German traces in Lebanon
“The Fake” - film and reality merge in Beirut

The German director Volker Schlöndorff was at a crossroads in 1980: he was the first German to win an “Oscar” in the “Best Foreign Language Film” category for his Brecht adaptation “The Tin Drum” and a successful career in Hollywood was imminent. But, he remembers, this would have meant the end of his freedom. In order to break out of the Hollywood world, perhaps also to assure himself of his own freedom, the German director chose a material that didn't really fit Hollywood.

Schlöndorff filmed the novel “The Fake” by Nicolas Born about the crisis journalist Laschen, who fled from marital problems to Lebanon to report on the raging civil war there. The sets for the film were not created by the stage builder, but by the Lebanese civil war itself: Schlöndorff shot his film in the middle of the still hotly contested but already completely destroyed city center of Beirut.

Before the civil war broke out in 1975 and plunged Lebanon into chaos for fifteen years, Beirut was known as the “Paris of the East” and, along with Cairo, was the capital of Arab film. Five years after the start of the war, Schlöndorff began filming. He had succeeded Bruno Ganz
for the role of the reporter Laschen, who increasingly doubts his own job, and Hannah Schygulla for the role of the German embassy employee Arianna. The first joint scene between the two took place in the German embassy - but it was shot in the premises of the Goethe Institute in West Beirut.

Schlöndorff saw himself as the successor to the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who used Berlin, which had been completely bombed after the Second World War, as the setting for his film “Germany in Years Zero”. The only difference was that the war in Beirut was still in full swing. In order to be able to film in the city center at all, the director met with all the warring parties and agreed an “artistic truce”, but he still had to be careful. Sometimes film and reality merged: while shooting in the destroyed old town, Bruno Ganz not only had to pay attention to the script, but also to cross streets with a crouched position so as not to be hit by snipers. Children who saw plastic body parts lying around on the film set brought real human remains with them to the shoot the next day. In the weeks after filming ended, Hannah Schygulla traveled through Lebanon for four weeks, like the Arianna she played in search of an orphan she could adopt. Not a blank cartridge was used during the entire shoot. The Lebanese extras who were cast every morning in Beirut insisted on real ammunition and some of them found themselves in the ranks of various militias that night.

Schlöndorff's work, which did not skimp on pyrotechnics and extra explosions, still shows the viewer today what Beirut looked like during the civil war. From the completely destroyed Holiday Inn, which was hotly contested in the "Battle of Hotels" between 1975-1976 and is still a symbol of the civil war, he let smoke rise again for "The Fake". The inner city seen in the film has meanwhile been torn down and rebuilt as a luxurious “downtown”. Although the film tells a fictional story, it clearly illustrates everyday life in Beirut, which is shaped by the violence of the militias. The fact that there was an “artistic truce”, which made the film possible in the first place, can be explained by the fact that all militias saw it as an opportunity to report positively on their group. To what extent the production of Schlöndorff's media-critical film is ethically justifiable, the viewer has to decide for himself.

Anyone who saw “The Deception” in the 80s after its publication and hoped for an early end to the civil war, was disappointed. Because like the film title, the “artistic truce” was nothing more than a deception. When everything was in the can in 1981, the conflicts flared up again, the armistice was ended and the militias went back to their day-to-day business. In return, the director had little consolation: “The film is over, reality continues.” None of the armistices of the next ten years was to endure. It wasn't until 1990 that a long lasting peace was made.