|A scene from The Circle.|
By Ed Rampell
Switzerland's Official Submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, Swiss co-writer/director Stefan Haupt’s The Circle (Der Kreis) is a fact-based, strong drama about the struggle for gay rights in Switzerland.
The film’s title refers to an actual gay self-help organization that arose in 1930s Zurich, founded by the renowned St. Gallen-born actor Karl Meir (who used the pseudonym “Rolf” and is portrayed onscreen by an avuncular Stephan Witschi). The group’s activities included publishing a multi-lingual magazine called The Circle and operating a gay bar which provided a regular meeting place and venue for annual costume balls which took place during the 1950s (when most of the story is set), attended by up to 800 gay men who traveled from all around Europe to dress up and dance.
At the heart of The Circle is a true life love story between teacher Ernest Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbuhler) and cross dressing performer Robi Rapp (Sven Schelker). Throughout Haupt’s film the narrative is intercut (or, some might say, “disrupted”) by contemporary interviews with the actual Ostertag and Rapp, talking heads who are now elderly gentlemen. The departure from feature format to documentary style was due to financial constraints, according to helmer Haupt. Some may find Haupt’s mixture of techniques to be jarring while other viewers will presumably think it enhances this gay liberation saga’s veracity.
During The Circle the organization experiences ups and downs, as do Ostertag and Rapp and their relationship. The long term romance of the educator and drag artist, through thick and thin, appears to be admirable and is reminiscent of the love between John Lithgow and Alfred Molina’s characters in the recent feature, Love is Strange, as well as 1978’s La Cage aux Folles and its 1996 Hollywood version The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane and Gene Hackman.
The Circle also calls to mind a great pro-gay play presented in 2011 at L.A.’s Blank Theatre called The Temperamentals. In that drama American gay rights pioneer Harry Hay is also shown to have been a card carrying, dues paying Communist Party member. Similarly, in The Circle motorcycle riding Felix (played by Anatole Taubman, who has matinee idol looks) is a hothead pushing for equality and a Marxist, whose confrontational tactics clash with those of the more moderate, older Rolf.
As The Circle was “the Mother of European gay organizations," why did it thrive for decades in Switzerland? Because this Alpine nation is a bastion of neutrality and democracy that was never conquered by Hitler’s hordes. Of course, that doesn’t mean this Swiss pro-gay group didn’t run into its fair share of, shall we say, circle jerks.
The people of The Circle endured many hardships, including a few homophobic-inspired murders that went unpunished (sound familiar?). But, at least, history went on to be kinder to our star couple when Ostertag and Rapp became the first gay married couple in Switzerland.