Gay cinema never runs out of oppressive histories to tell, and Stefan Haupt’s The Circle proves this statement with clarity and eloquence. It seems ridiculous that it took so long for this true-to-life tale to emerge in our collective consciousness, since it’s significance to any contemporary, liberal-minded society is crucially high, portraying in deliberate measure a trailblazing underground organisation and a gay couple’s struggle against postwar political conservatism. And they’re not just any other gay couple – we’re talking about literature teacher Ernst Ostertag and erstwhile transvestite chanteuse Röbi Rapp – the first ever same-sex couple to get married in Switzerland after nearly a century’s worth of Europe’s fight for LGBT emancipation.[divider]+[/divider]
Haupt lovingly recreates details and period motifs, lending Ernst’s bourgeois background and professional career as a schoolteacher an air of suffocation and Röbi’s cabaret life a sense of affection.[divider]+[/divider]
They are also members of Der Kreis, a pioneering pre-Stonewall gay Swiss society in the early 1930’s which championed gay rights throughout decades and published the only gay magazine circulating during the World War II. What with the infamous Paragraph 175 in stranglehold in Germany and most parts of Europe, Switzerland was the only country in the continent where homosexuality wasn’t criminalised. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t antagonised by the right-leaning Swiss citizens. What Ernst and Röbbi had gone through isn’t exactly the Third Reich (anti-homosexual legislations have punished thousands everywhere else in the continent and around the world), but the threat was clear and present. The Circle even contends that Zürich was, in fact, the gay capital of Europe and not Berlin. They just didn’t have icons such as Christopher Isherwood and Sally Bowles to glam things up.
History lesson aside, The Circle melds dramatic reconstruction and latter-day documentary in the hope to fully encompass the conflict in which Ernst, Röbi and their contemporaries have to shoulder through. While the interviews of the now-octogenarian couple diffuse with warmth and genuine heart, their half-a-lifetime companionship gives the screen a comfortable glow of serenity, the flashbacks of the turbulent days often verge on melodrama ridden with a dramaturgic complexity of a BBC history serial. But it’s not all stilted. Haupt lovingly recreates details and period motifs, lending Ernst’s bourgeois background and professional career as a schoolteacher an air of suffocation and Röbi’s cabaret life a sense of affection. A particular merit is how Haupt portrays the lovers’ relationship despite the gulf that separate their lifestyles. This is a milieu where the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Marquis de Sade and Albert Camus are being whisphered in corridors, and hunk-laden and drag-act society balls are being hosted in hush-hush. While Haupt never really achieves the Bob Fosse treatment, he manages to convey the message across clearly – one that’s been voiced by gay cinema since the dawn of time: the freedom of self-expression is, indeed, everything.