“Engaging and informative but also with a tendency to sometimes falter in terms of balancing two different approaches.”
by Ken B.
Maybe you won’t ever hear the names Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp next to more well known LGBT pioneers like Harvey Milk, Barbara Gittings, or Larry Kramer, but a lack of outward notability or activism does not denote a lack of interest. Stefan Haupt knows this, and highlights Ostertag and Rapp’s story in The Circle, absolutely engaging and informative but also with a tendency to sometimes falter in terms of balancing two different approaches. The first couple to register a same-sex civil partnership in Switzerland, they are now in their eighties, and here, interspersed with biographical drama, recall their life together – their meeting in Zürich in the late 1950s through the underground gay magazine Der Kreis (The Circle), and the tumultuous nature and often violent interceptions that the community faced at the time.
Playing them in their younger years is Matthias Hüngerbuhler as Ostertag and Sven Schelker as Rapp. At the time, Ernst was a teacher on the cusp of receiving a full certification, and Röbi was a young barber who lived with his widowed mother (Marianne Sägebrecht), and moonlighted as a singing drag queen at Der Kreis’ seasonal get-togethers. They first meet at one of these occasions, which initially involves Ostertag losing 100 francs on a bet, after insisting that there is no way that the person singing on stage is a man. He was wrong, of course. Their love must be secretive – despite the fact that homosexuality itself was legalized in Switzerland by then, public opinion still ostracizes anyone different, demonstrable in the case of a rent boy accused of murdering his client, a closeted composer. He is fully acquitted after the court concludes that he simply acted in self-defense after being coerced and forced to prostitute himself, despite there being no evidence to sustain that claim. Amidst all of these setbacks and dangers, the otherwise little known story of Ernst and Röbi evolves as the main focus of the film, cast against the backdrop of an ever-constant struggle that any minority group faces for unification and respect.
Those who view The Circle in search of a more comprehensive history of gay rights in Switzerland, or even in Zürich, will come away disappointed. As I said, the core couple at the center of the 102 minute movie is the primary subject, with the exception of detailing Ernst’s coworkers as well as those involved with the publication Der Kreis, which at its peak served 2,000 readers, just under half of which lived abroad. Joining the story in 1956, we are witnesses to the beginning of the last decade of the zine, as it closed its doors in 1967 after its relatively chaste writing and photography couldn’t keep up with the more lurid and graphic gay magazines from Scandinavia, printed under more lax standards and public attitudes, indicative of Der Kreis’ life in an era before the rise of a more “out” LGBT community. But what does not falter is the relationship between Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp, who are depicted in real life through standard interviews, with the kind of domestic familiarity and routine that you would expect any (unofficially) married couple with a decades-long history to have. Also featured are many of the friends and relatives of the two, offering a further image of this story.
It does take a while for Haupt to fully acquaint us with his intertwining of these talking head segments with the narrative flashbacks. It is done with the intent of increasing the total scope of the material at hand, more than a standard biopic or documentary could achieve alone. This certainly happens, but it also runs the risk of breaking up the pacing of the dramatic scenes. The documentary stuff is often included as an addendum of sorts to pivotal moments, which means that the scripted content has to come back into play in ebbs and flows. Still, the merit of that part of the movie comes through, with captivating work from lead actors Hüngerbuhler and Schelker filling the frame with raw emotion at key points, backed up with warm, absorbing cinematography by Tobias Dengler.
You’ve seen things with The Circle’s basic format before – it’s kind of like those “true crime” shows that mix comments from experts and witnesses with brief clips recreating the events being described. The difference here is that the clips in question comprise of notably more screen time than the documentary footage – I’d say about two-to-one, give or take, and are allowed to exist on their own. When it comes to the term docudrama, this makes it much more drama than docu. That’s not a bad thing, but it requires a kind of narrative fluidity that isn’t well accommodated by constant cutaways. However, I would be remiss to throw out the baby with the bathwater – Haupt’s film is a fascinating recounting of its namesake, a small chapter in modern gay rights history, examined through the perspective of one undying, well-weathered relationship.