Film review: Swiss docudrama The Circle tells story of magazine that inspired world’s gay community

By Joanna Wagner
LGBT Perspectives TV & Film Critic

SAN FRANCISCO — With so much attention to the not so distant past caused by the controversial new movie Stonewall, I was pleased to discover 2014’s The Circle (Der Kreis). The story is set in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1956 and 1957. Switzerland was the only country in central Europe where homosexuality was not illegal. It was not until the early 1960s that other countries like France and The Netherlands extended protections to gay people.  While not socially acceptable, at least you wouldn’t be jailed or committed for being gay. The closet door was still very much closed. Public disclosure would end a career and very likely destroy a life, as happened to one of the characters.

The Circle was a magazine that published literature, poetry and artwork that appealed to a primarily intellectual and artistic gay crowd. It was permitted, but each issue was subject to the approval of police censors; they regulated the types of photos and writing that would be allowed. In addition to the magazine, The Circle held events, balls with entertainments and a celebration where people could openly be themselves. It was the only event of its kind in the world during the 1950s. While small, with only 2,000 subscribers, it was known throughout the gay world and people traveled from different countries in Europe and even America to attend the balls.

The Circle was founded in the early 1930s by Rolf (Stefan Witshi), a Swiss citizen who had relocated to Germany to pursue his acting career. While homosexuality was illegal in Germany during the Weimar years, the law was not enforced. When Hitler became chancellor, that would change. Rolf returned to Switzerland and Zurich where he was the spark that ignited the flame of community in Zurich. A decade later, it would spread to the world.

The focus of the story is the relationship and love that would develop between Ernst Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbuhler) and Robi Rapp (Sven Schelker). Ernst was a teacher at a girls’ school and Robi was a barber. Robi was and is a drag performer who was 18 at the time the film is set; Ernst was in his 20s. Ernst saw Robi while he was performing and set his eyes on him; he had to have him. After several foiled attempts by Ernst, they eventually met; it was the beginning of a love that would last a lifetime.

Promiscuity in the gay community was not unique to the gay bathhouses of the 1970s. It was a part of the gay scene and attracted “rent boys” from other countries. They would eventually prove to be The Circle’s undoing. In the meantime, though, the party was on.

This film is part dramatization and part documentary. The story is told by script, but it is interspersed with narration from the people who were there. Ernst and Robi are still alive and still together. They are in their 80s, but they recall the time and the events with great clarity. Several other witnesses are also alive and contribute their memories to the narrative.

The Circle is an excellent movie; the concept and script are remarkable, the acting is superb.

In German and French with subtitles; streaming on Amazon Instant Video, US $2.99 




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