Ernst (Matthias Hungerbuhler), a young, gay French teacher in a Zurich girl’s school enters the world of The Circle, a celebrated gay organisation with its own much sought after homo-erotic magazine. During a late night ball organised by The Circle he meets beautiful, impassioned hairdresser and drag queen, Robi (Sven Shelker) and a relationship blossoms. Two murders committed by rent boys convince police of the ‘criminality’ of homosexuals and they embark on repressive campaign against The Circle and its members. An important and under-discussed period captured through documentary footage and fictional re-enactment.
In mid-1950’s Zurich, the gay scene is blossoming. On weekends, young Germans still suffering under anti-gay laws, flee to the city for weekends of raucous sailor themed balls, late night dances and drag shows. To outsiders, Zurich is the European ideal, a city of tolerance and acceptance, of welcomed diversity. But things aren’t quite so rosy. Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Switzerland, but beyond the explicitly gay venues- the bars, the clubs- it is hardly celebrated. The Circle’s members are prone to leading double lives; families are palmed off with false stories of absent girlfriends, evenings with rent boys are disguised as late night bowling tournaments. Haupt captures effectively the tense atmosphere undercutting the revelry, where identities remain partial, tentative and often hidden. We are told how The Circle uses no names, only coloured cards.
The underground magazine has long been a means of celebrating and exploring identity, re-enforcing and expanding community, helping connect across the diaspora and promoting radical new ideas. In The Circle we see the small, devoted team producing and packaging the organisation’s magazine for circulation. They may be in a tiny, dingy basement room in Switzerland, but their paper will soon be heading off to Germany, to London and the US. Those headquarters- hidden, dark, and claustrophobic- provide a poignant and apt backdrop to events, symbolic of sexuality pushed underground. With The Circle Haupt offers an important and always fascinating historical record of the tireless work, personal risk and individual hopes that kept the organisation running and which made it such a potent symbol of gay emancipation. The mid and late 50s were a time of social change, preparing for the mass reactions of the sixties, and Haupt does well to contextualise The Circle’s work against the changing intellectual landscape. Ernst wants to teach Camus, an idea outrageous to the school’s headmaster, who equates existentialism and communism.
The film has two aims- to chart the love story of the two protagonists and detail the wider context of The Circle and European gay scene. It is ambitious and apt- to examine homosexuality, a profoundly personal, but also broadly political issue, through the intimate and the historical. And it should be effective, the story’s strands- one cerebral and one emotional- re-enforcing, supporting and enriching our final impression of the time. But ultimately The Circle suffers for from a lack of focus and the result is a picture that feels incomplete. The documentary footage largely consists of domestic scenes, the now elderly Ernst and Robi making tea in a stylish Zurich apartment. They discuss their relationship, and it is sweet, sometimes sad, stories of lingering glances, parental pressures, and lover’s frustrations. But to the larger, progressively darker historical narrative that backgrounds their meeting, their accounts are at times distracting and sometimes seem irrelevant or too narrow in focus to fully illuminate. There are two tales played out here, but we don’t feel fully involved in either.
The film concludes with footage from Robi and Ernst’s recent marriage- the first gay marriage in Switzerland. That their relationship would ever be officially ‘endorsed’ would have been incredible to their earlier selves, for whom secrecy and pretence seemed the only viable future. Switzerland has moved on, but in many parts of the world this secrecy and pretence remains the reality and threat is always looming. The film is a prescient nod to those places, like Russia and Uganda, where the struggle continues. It is an important record of a difficult time, in which community and identity came under fire but ultimately prevailed.
If overly ambitious The Circle is an always interesting, important document detailing a crucial and uncertain time in Switzerland and Europe. A record of the bravery, hard work and persistence of a small group of people in the face of society’s prejudice.
Director: Stefan Haupt
Starring: Robi Rapp, Ernst Ostergtag, Matthias Hungerbuhler, Sven Shleker
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: Jan 26th 2015