Finding gay love and acceptance in mid-century Switzerland
by Megan Smith
A well-groomed man walks briskly down the street in 1950s Zurich. He waits until the streets are clear of any onlookers, then quickly darts into his destination. Once behind closed doors, he enters into a sparkling world where men adorned in costumes dance together, laugh, and even caress one another. This is a place where gay men could truly be open about their identity—a ball hosted by Switzerland’s pioneering gay organization, The Circle.
Founded in 1942 by Karl Meier, The Circle served as an underground network and social club for gay men at a time when being openly gay meant risking your job, friends, and family. The organization’s magazine, also named The Circle, was distributed to nearly 2,000 gay men across the world in unmarked envelopes to ensure privacy. Although the magazine was restricted by Swiss censorship laws (it could only feature full-frontal nude drawings, not photographs), these laws were liberal in comparison to those of neighboring countries such as Germany.
To memorialize the organization’s rich history for future generations, director Stefan Haupt brings us his latest film, The Circle (Der Kreis). An interesting multi-dimensional hybrid of documentary and fiction, the film follows the story of Circle members Ernst Ostertag (portrayed by Matthias Hungerbuhler) and Röbi Rapp (portrayed by Sven Schelker) from the time of their initial meeting through the development of their passionate and loving relationship.
Ostertag, a young teacher working toward his certification, becomes infatuated with Rapp from the first time he sees him performing on stage. A hairdresser by day and a vocally talented drag queen for The Circle by night, Rapp is a revered figure within the organization. The two quickly enter into a whirlwind romance—having to navigate the fine line between the sexually liberated culture that had permeated the gay community and the monogamy that presumably goes along with a committed relationship.
The film’s interviews with the real-life Ostertag and Rapp, who are now in their 80s, adds a whole new layer to the story. Their commentary helps to present a fuller picture of the organization and its members, and serves as a constant reminder that the events being depicted are, in fact, real. It also leaves us with a heartwarming, modern-day fairy-tale ending, as we discover that—despite all the obstacles they faced—Ostertag and Rapp became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Switzerland in 2003.
But when a series of murders of gay men by “rent boys” occurs, The Circle falls under scrutiny by the Swiss police. Police raids on the organization’s balls threaten the group’s confidentiality and have detrimental effects on a few of The Circle’s closeted members (including Mr. Sieber, the principal of Ostertag’s school).
Finally, as Holland and Denmark’s censorship laws changed in the 1960s, newer, more risqué publications stole a significant number of subscribers away from The Circle. Unable to adapt, the organization and magazine closed its doors in 1967, though its legacy would live on through future gay publications that documented the movement, such as Club 68. As Circle member Felix says in the film, “The same rights for everyone, that’s my communism.”
Available March 31 from Wolfe Video (wolfevideo.com).