The Circle is a unique marriage between documentary and period piece. The new Swiss film from director Stefan Haupt tells the story underground gay publication The Circle, which was active in Zurich during the 1940s and 50s. The film follows the secret society-like organization from its conception to its demise, as we watch a love story between two prominent members of the Zurich gay scene unfold. This tale is brought to life as the protagonists’ real-life modern-day selves chime in with memories from the present.
The lovers, Robi Rapp and Ernst Ostertag, were both deeply involved in the publication and in Zurich gay community. Rapp was a most popular drag queen, originally shacking up with one of the magazine’s founders, and Ostertag was a French language schoolteacher. Since the two sit close together on a couch in their present-day interview, it is evident from the beginning that they are still a couple. Although that mystery is taken out of the film, it is still entertaining to see the two cheerily give details of their history together and involvement in the unique magazine.
While being gay was technically not punishable by Swiss law after 1942, stigma against homosexuality was widespread and, for many people, fear of being discovered ran deep. Besides providing a trilingual journal for gay folks, The Circle was also a private club with membership cards that listed numbers instead of names to protect identities. The film reflects on a wide variety of experiences from the time, profiling some men who were openly gay and others who concealed their orientation at all costs. Ostertag rightfully worried being out would jeopardize his chances of earning his teaching certification—though at the same time, the principal of his school hired seedy “rent boys” for BJs before retiring to his wife and children at night.
The club held elaborate “gay mega events” that brought in guests from all over Europe and parts of the United States. Rapp was the star of many of these galas and beautifully sang for audiences in gowns sewn by his own mother. He and Ostertag fell deeply in love, even introducing one another to their families.
But when a string of violent, hate-based murders began to take the lives of gay men in the community, instead of investigating the real culprits behind the crimes, the police turned to The Circle as a scapegoat. Ostertag and Rapp recall how it felt to find out, one after another, that close friends were being killed and were never to receive adequate justice.
Eventually, both the magazine and club crumbled as police harassed and incriminated members. The interrogations and increased border control proved to be too much to continue efforts—in 1966, both the club and magazine officially closed up shop.
After this sad fact is revealed, the film takes a bit of a detour and shifts the focus. We fast-forward in time to two years later and we see a very proud Rapp and Ostertag happily nesting in their cute, new Zurich apartment. They mention the great importance of the year 1968 and a magazine that was circulated by the name of Club 68 during the time, but never actually never tell you why this year was so important. A couple Google searches later and I’m still left feeling confused.
As sweet as Rapp and Ostertag’s commentary is, the movie’s twin narratives compete for time and focus. Both angles of the film are engaging, but between the at-times excessive number of characters, the ever-changing status of the magazine, and the fairy-tale love story, The Circle packs a few too many layers into its 102 minutes. But even though the stories are hard to keep track of, the film is powerful and inspiring. As we watch time speed on into the early 2000s, Rapp and Ostertag become Zurich’s first legal same-sex “registered partnership” after 47 years together. Now that’s a happy ending.
The Circle opened in February in Switzerland and screened at the Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival this month. Keep an eye out for information about other screenings in the United States. All photos courtesy of the film.
Emilly Prado is a former Bitch editorial and new media intern who studied social work and education at Portland State and has since been juggling various child-related jobs and writing gigs.