The incredible real-life love story of resilience and longevity between Ernst Ostertag and his transvestite muse, Röbi Rapp, melds with the history of gay panic and dissident sociality of post-war Europe in Stefan Haupt’s The Circle. The film embodies this fusion of the personal and the political by combining present-day documentary footage (the lovers are now in their 80s) and a sophisticated fictionalized reenactment of the rise and fall of the Circle, a Swiss gay organization that published a secretive magazine and put up lavish balls and whose active members included Ostertag and Rapp. Since homosexuality was never a criminal offense in Switzerland, Zürich became a sort of cosmopolitan gay mecca in the 1950s, which drew people from all over Europe and the United States—as well as a few murderous Italian hustlers, it turns out. Its popular underground scene was largely propped up by the membership-only organization that gives the film its title, whose printed publications had 2,000 subscribers, 700 from abroad, featuring articles, advertisements for gay parties, pictures, and ludic drawings of thong-wearing sailors and naked men riding horses à la James Bidgood.
Stefan Haupt’s Brechtian interruption of the fiction with the documentary, and vice versa, keeps us from ever being fully immersed in either, pulling the experience away from the emotional and toward the cerebral. This is a love story, but a cold one. As much as The Circle is obviously the perfect gay-film-festival fodder, what with its trajectory of a couple surviving almost a century of gay eradication attempts, it’s mostly a remarkable historical document, or rather, a remarkable amending of history through the sexual and social lives of queers otherwise removed from it. At times, Ostertag and Rapp’s ruminations suggest a commentary track on a DVD release, fading in and out of the reenactment of the couple’s unlikely coming together in matter-of-fact fashion: Ostertag is the budding Camus-loving intellectual from the bourgeoisie, and Rapp is the poor German immigrant with cabaret dreams and something of a fag hag for a mother. At other times, their participation in the fiction feels like surreal explications akin to Slavoj Žižek’s presence in the recreated film sets of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. A scene where Ostertag physically takes us back through the dynamics of entering one of the Circle’s gay balls is particularly moving.
Watching The Circle is calming because we know, from the beginning, that despite the gay-bar raids and the police-power abuses, Swiss violence is polite in comparison to what we know about cruelty against LGBTs in other parts of the world from the mid 1900s until the present day. From the beginning, we never lose sight that this is a story of survivors. Although the film’s austere and melancholy tone can echo Sébastien Lifshitz’s breathtaking Bambi, another story of transvestite resilience, Haupt’s film is hopeful not only because its main characters survive, but also because their togetherness does. The film refuses to tease us with suspense, overwhelm us with sentimentality, or defy us with nuance. Its fiction-with-documentary form is less of an experimentation than a straightforward attempt at rendering its story/history palpable. The horrors of gay witch-hunting and the suffocating banality of the closets of yore feel like a reassuringly distant trauma as, ultimately, the nightmare ends in a fairy tale where the characters are at once actors and witnesses, and not just alive, but politely joyful.