The Circle (Der Kreis): Berlin Review

Der Kreis Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

Der Kreis Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

A great and beautifully reenacted story is occasionally interrupted by talking heads that add little.

Director Stefan Haupt's feature, about the eponymous gay magazine and network in Switzerland, won the Teddy and Panorama Audience Award for best documentary in Berlin.

BERLIN -- A watershed moment in Swiss and European gay history is finally given the feature treatment in The Circle (Der Kreis), though unfortunately director Stefan Haupt (Sagrada), who has a documentary background, has opted for a hybrid docu-fiction format, which means that the moving and sometimes suspenseful reenactments, set in the 1950s, are occasionally interrupted by the real protagonists of the story as talking heads, though they add very little.

The Circle explores the eponymous Zurich gay club and magazine, which was founded in 1942 by actor Karl Meier, but which is introduced via real-life members Ernst Ostertag and Roebi Rapp, who met at a Circle ball in 1956, when Ostertag was a naive young teacher and Rapp the ball’s main drag act, though he was only 18 at the time. The period reenactments do a terrific job of depicting how the couple met and fell in love and how the circumstances were much more difficult for gay men in the 1950s, even in a country where homosexuality was not a crime (unlike in neighboring Germany).

This beautifully assembled Berlinale premiere won both the Teddy and the Panorama Audience Award in the best documentary category and has been sold to several territories including the U.S., where Wolfe Releasing picked up all rights. 

Haupt was first introduced to the story of Ostertag and Rapp, who would go on to become the first Swiss same-sex couple to register as partners in the 2000s, via his gay brother. Rapp and especially Ostertag are in some ways the guardian angels of the collective memory of the gay movement of German-speaking Switzerland, having not only lived through decades of changing attitudes and participated in The Circle but also continued to write about their own and Swiss gay history on their website, Swiss journalist Barbara Bosshard even wrote a book about their decades-long relationship that was published last year.

Something of this (untold) backstory might explain why Haupt thought it was necessary to feature the actual couple in filmed talking-head segments as well, reminiscing about their youth and the problems they faced as young gay men. However, their actual story is much more compelling as a high-stakes drama, especially since Matthias Hungerbuehler and Sven Schelker, who play Ostertag and Rapp as young men, respectively, are engaging actors and the screenplay does a great job of exploring all the obstacles the two lovers had to face simply because both were of the same sex.

In 1956, Ostertag was just starting as a French literature teacher at an all-girls school in Zurich, though the school’s principal, Mr. Sieber (Peter Jecklin), warns him not to try things that are too avant-garde, such as Albert Camus’s existentialist 1942 novel The Stranger. He hears about the Circle, which publishes a bimonthly magazine with pictures, stories, articles and art for homosexuals, and which organizes get-togethers and special costume balls where the men could meet and mingle. Membership cards featured just numbers, no names, and the magazine was delivered in neutral envelopes, with Meier closely guarding the subscription list -- which became of interest for the Zurich police when several murders took place in what they characterize as "the gay milieu."

There was official state censorship back then, though it allowed full-frontal nudity in drawings (not photographs) and the trilingual French-, German- and English-language magazine got away with racier texts in Shakespeare’s language because the censors and even Meier, the editor-in-chief, couldn’t read them. But Haupt is wise enough to mainly focus on the human emotions rather than editorial details, since they make it clear why gay men, like everyone else, needed a sense of community, recognition and, why not, love. 

The police threats and raids increase when the murders start to make headlines and vitriolic and homophobic articles appear in the mainstream press. Through all this, Ostertag risks being found out as a gay man, which would mean he’d lose his still unconfirmed job as an educator and which his conservative, bourgeois family would find impossible to live down. The situation is very different for young Rapp, the son of a widowed German and thus foreign mother (Marianne Saegebrecht, excellent in a bit part) who worked as a cleaner and a theater wardrobe lady and who not only knew about her son’s homosexuality but even helped sew the dresses for his drag performances and who welcomed Ostertag with open arms.

Adding even more stress is the fact that Rapp was only 18 when he met Ostertag, though the age for consensual same-sex activity was 20 in Switzerland at the time, though Haupt doesn’t dwell on this not insignificant detail. Nonetheless, the film makes it very clear how much hurdles a same-sex couple that simply wanted to be together had to clear in the 1950s and how the pioneering The Circle, for which there was not a lot of historical precedent, helped fill a void but how its relatively low profile became a problem when a series of rent-boy murders shook the city.

On top of that, the lovebirds have to deal with the usual things couples go through, something which even extends to this day, as evidenced by an interview moment in which the two argue about how long it took Ostertag to finally introduce Rapp to his parents (he wouldn’t come out to his family until his 70th birthday, though he lived with Rapp since the 1950s). Unfortunately, this one of the very few moments in which the audiences learn something that couldn’t have been inferred from the reenactments themselves, with the interview segments more often than not simply interrupting the flow of the story rather than adding any new insight.

Production designer Karin Giezendanner and the costume designs of Catherine Schneider evoke the period without fastidious attention to detail, ensuring the characters are the main focus throughout. Federico Bettini’s score strikes the perfect balance between feeling retro and supporting both the action and the film’s emotional undercurrents.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Contrast Film Zürich, SRF, SRG SSR, Ascot Elite Entertainment Group
Cast: Matthias Hungerbuehler, Sven Schelker, Ernst Ostertag, Roebi Rapp, Anatole Taubman, Marianne Saegebrecht, Stephan Witschi, Antoine Monot Jr., Matthias Meier, Peter Jecklin, Babett Arens, Markus Merz, Martin Hug, Marie Leuenberger
Director: Stefan Haupt
Screenwriters: Stefan Haupt, Christian Felix, Ivan Madeo, Urs Frey
Producers: Ivan Madeo, Urs Frey
Director of photography: Tobias Dengler
Production designer: Karin Giezendanner
Music: Federico Bettini
Costume designer: Catherine Schneider
Editor: Christoph Menzi
Sales: Wide House
No rating, 101 minutes