Dir. Stefan Haupt. Germany. 2014.

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This part drama-part documentary follows the gay movement in Zurich, Switzerland in the 1950s and onwards via the life of a publication and movement called Der Kreis. The fanzine and its life is the centre stage for the lives and love affair of its main protagonists Ernst Ostertag and the transvestite drag star Robi Rapp. The film intersperses the fictional account of their meeting, their involvement with the magazine and the surrounding society, with interviews of the still living couple talking us as now old men through their memories of each other and the life and times of The Circle.

It acts as sociological reference as much as The Naked Civil Servant did back in the day; however the film is very different in style and form if not in context. The British account of the life of Quentin Crisp when released as book was one of those watershed items that was a litmus paper of the times, indicating the thoroughly reprehensible act of gay bashing and the need for change, as did the film The Victim which equally shone light on the trait of blackmailing closet professionals leading double lives with married women and often children.   Both artistic expressions of gay life were able precursors to the change in legislation in the UK as regards homosexuality. In contrast the publication Der Kreis (The Circle) had a global but secret and subversive following with a club, membership and society reminiscent of the gang surrounding Francis Bacon and Muriel Sparks in the infamous Coach  & Horses pub in Soho some time later. The Circle, though as much as it was inclusive and secretive, was globally influential in inspiring similar outings all over the world.  The club owner and social pioneer 'Rolf' whose real name was Karl Meier was less the angry young man but consolidator and decent collaborator with authority.  The story arc of the relative tolerance shown towards the movement starts with the decadence of the club life before the proverbial hits the fan vis a vis the actions and life of a small but growing niche press.

Inevitably, the inclusive gang responsible for the publication are behind the costumed balls held in subversive but well known outlets. To a certain extent gay press and club life hasn't changed but this is presented as the ground breaking first working model.
The role of the club and movement hits a challenge with the onset of a string of murders of gay homosexual prostitutes and as a moral panic emerged the practice of same couple dancing was banned as a bizarre knee jerk reaction. The so called 'Stricher- Milieu', the name for the gay prostitution of the times was to blame for the raids and closures of closet balls and costumed parties - which look so much fun in the film and is where the leading men meet and fall in love. These parties often attracted multinational crowds of attendance of near 800.

Admittedly, it can be very disconcerting going from fact into dramatized account, with often the much older versions of the leading protagonists narrating over the action in the film. This we have seen before to a less extent in the excellent drama serial Band of Brothers with the veterans of Easy Company talking us through the emotional and real life impact of the scenes we see on film. Angels in America - a massive big budget US project was similar in form and narrative but more grandiose in style, with US 1980s gay life across professions and experience given a sprawling life/drama mix. The format combo can work if not a little risky for the film maker and confusing for the viewer. Here, thankfully, the fictional counterparts look very, very much like the younger versions of the real men speaking to us and this helps smooth the transitions. The actors Matthias Hungerbuhler (Ernst), and his lover, the very good looking Sven Schilker (Robi) shine as the young couple playing the lives of the gay pioneers from the ages 25 - 30. The casting of these two is pitch perfect.

The story itself is very interesting and compelling, covering some of the territory we are used to in the overall fight for rights of this minority: the cameo characters are equally well cast, the dislikeable gay prostitute among them is murdered as is another character that looks almost like a rapist in the aggression with which he carries out the sex between him and his 'partner.'  The ensuring police raids and naked searches are carried out before us and evoke the feelings of disgust and empathy it sets out to do. As it is The Circle has to be placed somewhere between 'Paris is Burning' (the documentary of pre AIDS NY dance scene) and the classic docudrama The Naked Civil Servant for accurate account and progressive gay scene fly on the wall. The real Robi and Ernst getting married when they cannot quite get used to something other than a clandestine existence is as moving and memorable epilogue to a drama to be seen.

Gail Spencer

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