The Circle Illuminates Switzerland’s Post-WWII Underground Gay Scene

7.24.2014

By Dennis Hinzmann

The documentary-reenactment hybrid unveils secret publications and glamorous parties amid a fear of discovery and exposure

Imagine a time when being a gay-friendly country simply meant that it wasn’t a criminalized offense. Any job or social standing any gay person held was still volatile if they drew attention to themselves. Despite this risk, gay people still sought out and gravitated toward like-minded individuals — especially in post-WWII Switzerland. 

The Circle, named after a small, secretive, gay magazine from the period, follows the romantic story of a teacher, Ernst, and singer, Robi, living in Zurich after the war. The city had become an underground metropolis for gay men, especially those coming from nearby Germany — where homosexuality was outlawed. 

Director Stefan Haupt tells through recollections from the real-life Ernst and Robi and reenactments, chronicling how the two met and how things got worse before they got better. Staying closeted at the time could literally be the difference between life and death, but gay men organized and participated in guarded social events where, for a time, they could express themselves and feel safe.

One of the more pleasant surprises from the film comes from Robi’s mother, who is a widow and knows that her son is gay. Rather than subscribe to the views of the time, she actually encourages him by making his gowns and costumes for when he performs in drag at the secret parties frequented by Zurich’s gay population. 

The inclusion of the real, now elderly, Ernst and Robi adds a necessary layer of realism to what could easily be mistaken for fiction. With all of the recent victories and advances for equality it’s easy to lose sight of how not-too-distant the past is where it was illegal to love whoever you wanted and how, in some places, it still is. Hearing the story from the mouths of the people who lived it feels like an imperative aspect of the film. 

The Circle screens as part of NewFest July 26.

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