Going back to the future through interviews with Switzerland’s first married gay couple, Stefan Haupt’s half-documentary The Circle reveals a postwar openness ahead of its time.
Love In A Dark Time by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
While the rest of the world was recovering from the Second World War and cracking down on unseemly wayward tendencies, Switzerland it seems was a bastion for gay rights and a beacon for gay men, due in part to its liberal laws on homosexuality and to the Zürich based magazine The Circle, which found itself with a list of subscribers from every corner of the globe. Almost 15 years before the Stonewall marches in New York, Switzerland defiantly flaunts a flash of openness – with drag singers and men-only dances. An irrepressible flash of colour in a sombre age of conservatism. It’s a fascinating time, lovingly recreated in Stefan Haupt’s film through dramatic instalments and documentary interviews, to tell the story of Ernst and Robi – together for over fifty years and Switzerland’s first gay couple to get married.
Zurich, 1958. Ernst Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbühler) is a languages teacher at a girls’ school, keen on opening his class’s eyes with a little of Camus’ The Outsider. He has digs in a local boarding house, and despite the advances of a female colleague, signs up with ‘The Circle’ keen to help out. There he meets German editor Rolf (Stefan Witschi) and is promptly invited to a ball, where after clapping eyes on transvestite singer Robi (Sven Schelker) it’s love at first sight. Despite some murders in the gay community, some probing detective enquiries and a crackdown on gay civil liberties, their romance blossoms. But while Robi is out and proud, Ernst must reconcile his love for Robi with the conservative school he teaches at and his bourgeois family.
Although it’s a realm inhabited by both venerable and budding young directors alike – from the semi-documentary universes of Ulrich Seidl to the poetic interludes of Matt Wolf’s Teenage, the alchemy of combining documentary with fictional sequences is a hard nut to crack. But with his latest documentary The Circle, Stefan Haupt strikes the balance perfectly, allowing the dramatic episodes to do the story’s heavy lifting, while the talking head interviews return us to the factual world of history, underscoring the personal importance of the slow road to liberation for these two men.
As a result, the story with its louche, moustachioed lotharios, buttoned-up headmasters and inquisitive detectives is more gently informative than arcing or dramatic, and Haupt refrains from putting too much of a personal spin on Ernst and Robi’s love lives, observing quietly without overstating the emotional maelstrom of first love or keeping up appearances. It’s occasionally simplistic – such as the exaggerated characterisation of back-stabbing rent boy Rinaldi, but the characters are generally realistic, without reaching for tragic lost causes or stereotypes. But where The Circle really excels is in its production design, atmospherically evoking a colourful counterculture on the make – inhabited by a milieu of libertarians and freethinkers, who didn’t care much for moralising world around them.
Part documentary and part adaptation, The Circle is a unique experience, both informative and emotionally rewarding. And it’s a fascinating glimpse into a short window in time, where Switzerland offered a safe haven for lesbians and gays beyond the confines of middle-class morality, becoming an unwitting forerunner to liberation movements the world over. The preciousness of this shining microcosm in the dark is borne out by the fifty-year relationship between Ernst and Robi, and culminating in their trailblazing marriage in 2003, Stefan Haupt’s film allows us to contemplate how far we’ve come – forwards, backwards and finally full circle.
The Circle is released on 12th December 2014 in the UK