Gay Love in '50s Zurich: The Circle

Gay Love in '50s Zurich: The Circle

Photo: Ernst Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbühler) and Röbi Rapp (Sven Schelker) in 'The Circle'

While Switzerland has long been celebrated for its progressive neutrality, that Zurich was once the cultural hub of international gay life is a fact that often goes overlooked. Legal tolerance of homosexuality made the German-speaking metropolis a homosexual haven at a time when persecution was the norm. The tri-lingual literary journal, The Circle, was the eponymous publication of an organization dedicated to the refinement and celebration of gay culture. It was the epicenter of a scene that attracted people from across Europe and North America. It is also the focus of the official Swiss entry for the Best Foreign Film category of the 87th Academy Awards, simply named The Circle (Der Kreis).

Set in the late-1950s, the docu-drama follows the budding romance of two young men, Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp, against the backdrop of gay Zurich at its zenith. A true story, it covers the period of The Circle’s decline and eventual collapse in 1967. A string of rentboy murders provided police with an excuse to target the city’s gay community, which then led to harassment, blackmail, and even an official register of homosexuals within the country. Despite the increasing difficulty of living as a couple, Ernst and Röbi weathered the challenges and, in 2003, became the first same-sex couple in Switzerland to have their registered partnership (marriage in all but name) legally recognized.

In a somewhat unusual move, director Stefan Haupt decided to weave documentary style interviews with Ernst and Robi today throughout a beautiful period drama. Originally intended as a pure dramatic recreation, financial troubles forced the team to rethink their approach. The Circle is a far cry from other docu-dramas, however, which are mostly made for television and dragged down by lackluster reenactments. “We did not start with the documentary idea and look for scenes to make it a little bit nicer,” Haupt explains to Out. “We had a fiction film script and tried to replace parts by interviews.”

The finished project is a streamlined production with interjections by the disarmingly endearing 84-year-olds adding depth and substance to the acting of Matthias Hungerbühler (Ernst) and Sven Schelker (Robi).

Out has an exclusive clip to whet cinematic appetites. The scene below begins with a recreation of the brutal police interrogation of Ernst the morning after a raid on a Zurich gay bar. Then, the elderly Ernst and Robi recount how they endured such an ordeal, before the clip slips back into the past with a heartfelt reunion after Ernst’s release.

The Circle opens Nov. 21 in NYC; Dec. 18 in L.A. Watch a short clip from The Circle below: 

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