Dir.: Stefan Haupt
Cast: Matthias Hungerbühler, Sven Schelker, Anatole Taubmann, Stephan Witschi, Marianne Sägebrecht, Ernst Ostertag, Röbi Rapp;
Switzerland 2014, 100 min. Docu-Drama
THE CIRCLE informs us, rather surprisingly, that Zurich once was the European capital of the gay scene. In the 1950s, every Friday plane loads of Germans arrived for the weekend because in Switzerland – contrary to Germany – homosexuality was not a crime. In Stefan Haupt’s engaging docu-drama (Switzerland’s Oscar® hope for 2015) we soon discover that gay men and lesbian women were under constant threat of police harassment and censorship.
Haupt (Utopia Blues) tells the story of “The Circle”, a gay community group formed in 1942 in Zurich by the actor Karl Meier (Witschi). We join the action in 1956, when the 18 year old hairdresser Röbi Rapp (Schelker) met the young teacher Ernst Ostertag (Hungerbühler) at the organisation’s yearly shindig, that become a magnet for gay men from all over Europe. The film follows their story, intercut with the usual talking-head interviews with Rapp and Ostertag themselves, which interrupt the rather well-constructed period narrative.
“The Circle” published a magazine of the same name which was tri-lingual for a good reason: whilst the police and censors were able to interfere with the French and German versions, none of them spoke English, so that the more daring parts were printed only in English, and omitted from the other versions. It was with regard to the contents of this magazine that Ostertag and Rapp had their first argument. Rapp felt inferior to the well-educated teacher, who came from a upper-middle class family (who would have been mortified by the knowledge of his sexual orientation), and whilst Rapp’s mother (Sägebrecht) was an immigrant from Germany (who coped well with her son being gay), she worked as a lowly cleaner. After their argument, Ostertag gave Rapp his poems, which his lover, a gifted singer, put into rather moving songs, which accompany the film.
At school Ostertag had other problems: he wanted to read Camus’ “L’ Etranger” with his all-girl class but Siebert, the head teacher, also a member of “The Circle”, told him to choose “some classical French text”: he himself had perfected a way to fly under the radar in all areas of his life. But after a gay composer is killed in Zurich, police harassment of the gay community worsens, and when Sieber’s name is mentioned after a raid on the club’s premises, the head teacher takes his life, after his wife leaves him with the children.
For the next decade, until the student riots of 1968 deflected the police from harassing the gay community, “The Circle” group was under surveillance: whenever a gay member was beaten-up or killed, it was often the perpetrator who was seen as the victim in the media, not the real victim. Ironically, 1968 meant the end for the “Circle” and its publication: magazine imports from Denmark were much more daring, and the younger members left the group because Meier had, in their eyes, made too many comprises with the police.
Haupt crafts a bold and lovingly detailed period-piece enriched by contemporary newsreels underlining the staid and bourgeois atmosphere in the city, making it even more surprising that gay life was at all possible in such a reactionary social setting. The ensemble acting is convincing, and the social divisions between Ostertag’s and Rapp’s family are still alive and kicking even today, provoking intense debate between the (real) couple over the delay in Ostertag inviting Rapp to meet his posh family for the first time.AS
DER KREIS won Berlin’s Panorama Audience and Teddy Award and is now available on DVD from January 29, 2015