Screening at the 2015 Mardi Gras Film Festival. For festival tickets and session details visit the official website HERE.
The Circle is a Swiss docudrama set in post war Zurich. The title translates as Der Kreis, the name given to a publication for gay men in the 1940s and 50s. Subscribers to the magazine often did so in secret, however it did provide the opportunity for an underground social scene, which is how the two protagonists, Ernst Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbuhler), a schoolteacher, and Robi Rapp (Sven Schelker), a cabaret singer, meet and fall in love. Although the film is essentially a love story, it is much more than that, serving as a historical narrative of the events that occurred in the Swiss city at the time.
After a series of murders within the gay community, life for Ernst, Robi and all those involved with The Circle becomes much more difficult. At the time, Zurich had become somewhat of a Mecca for those who wished to be openly gay in a protected environment. Although being gay was severely frowned upon at the time, it was legal in Switzerland, unlike the bordering Germany, where it had been outlawed by the Nazi regime. When the murders occur, the general public – and therefore the police – become less tolerant of the underground lifestyle, consequently making it illegal to gather in public for ‘gay events’ and causing individuals to become fearful of being outed.
The scripted storyline is interspersed with documentary-style interviews from the now elderly couple Ernst and Robi, as well others involved at the time. These interviews give a certain level of depth, allowing the audience to see just how true to life the narrative is and providing a strong sense of nostalgia. Director and writer Stefan Haupt has managed to combine snippets of the modern-day couple telling their story very cleverly within the narrative, moving the story along through both devices, from the past to the present. It is also heart-warming to know throughout that Ernst and Robi are still together, although this in itself gives away the ending from the very beginning.
The Circle is a fine example of storytelling, showing that sometimes simply telling the truth, as it were, can be just as engaging as fiction. There are no bells and whistles, exaggerated sex scenes or stereotypical caricatures, and it does not shy away from the reality of how Switzerland was at the time, especially if you happened to be gay. However, it does sometimes feel that the director has stopped short of giving the full account, possibly in order to protect the individuals involved.
This self-restraint leaves some of the plotlines seemingly tame, with actors not fully given the opportunity to show strong levels of emotion or intensity. Even the soundtrack, although appropriate to the time setting, can often be rather melancholy and subdued. Given the film is more a period drama than a documentary, Haupt could have taken a few more risks. In trying to keep the integrity of the story and documentary style, he has missed out on taking the dramatic to another level.
Beyond the storyline, The Circle is an homage to real life individuals, such as Rolf (Stefan Witschi), the chief editor of the magazine who quietly fought for equality, giving an outlet for those who could not be themselves in public. And even Robi’s mother (Marianne Sägebrecht), who completely accepts her son for who he is and allows him to be completely open around his family, which was often unheard of in the era.
Thoughtful and interesting, The Circle highlights the difficulties of life back then for gay men and, using a true story and historical events as a background, teaches us how far we have come.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10