Director Stefan Haupt beautifully captures the evolution of gay rights in Switzerland from past to present in the award-winning docudrama, The Circle. The Circle is the name of a gay organization in Zurich in the 1950s, where homosexuality was not illegal (as in neighbouring Germany), but was not openly discussed or accepted. The Circle held extravagant costume balls for the gay community and published a multilingual gay erotica magazine that became popular around the world. The film follows the love story of Ernest Ostertag, a teacher at a girl’s school, and Röbi Rapp, a drag queen performer, who both become avid members of the organization. After a series of murders within the gay community, The Circle becomes under attack by authorities and eventually is forced to shut down. Despite all of these struggles, Ernest and Röbi remain together and have become the first gay couple to be married in Switzerland, at the age of seventy. The now-married couple narrates the film in a series of contemporary interviews as actors Matthias Hungerbühler and Sven Schelker brilliantly re-enact their dramatic history.
The film powerfully recreates not only the love story of Ernest and Röbi, but also the oppression that the gay community was subjected to. Although homosexuality was not a crime, homophobia was prominent within society. Gay people were encouraged not to express their sexuality if they wanted to maintain their social standing. The founder of The Circle, Rolf, encourages Ernest not to attend any gay social events until he becomes a certified teacher. With the pressure to conform to the expectations of a homophobic society, Ernest struggles between protecting his social status and expressing his sexuality. The era was one that preached compulsory heterosexuality: the idea that heterosexuality was ‘natural’ and ‘mandatory’. We later learn that Ernest’s boss, the principle of the school, also struggles with expression of his sexual identity. In attempt to comply with the heterosexual societal expectation, he keeps his sexuality a secret as he leads a life as a straight, married man, following the script of the ‘standard story’. The reality of the time was that in order to be accepted, and especially to maintain a job of such prestigious standing, heterosexuality was mandatory. This is clearly illustrated when his true identity is revealed and his life falls apart– his wife abandons him in disgust, his children are taken from him, and as a result, he takes his own life. In contrast to Ernest and his boss, Röbi expresses his sexuality confidently, despite the strict binary thinking held by society. He embraces traditional ‘feminine’ qualities as he performs as a drag queen, revealing the true diversity of the gender spectrum.
A scene of particular interest is the scene in which Ernest finally brings Röbi to meet his parents and sister. In a contemporary interview Röbi comments on how long it took Ernest to introduce them. After the audience views the re-enactment of the awkward, tension-filled lunch, it is easy to understand Ernest’s hesitation. This scene in itself illustrates the prominent theme of nonacceptance of homosexuality of the time. When Ernest and Röbi first arrive at the house, Röbi eagerly presents Ernest’s mother with flowers. His mother, clearly unpleasantly surprised by the arrival of her son with another man, throws the flowers on a table. Her rejection of the flowers is a representation of her immediate rejection of the idea that her son might be gay. The lunch is filled with awkward stares, and subject-changing conversations. In a modern interview, Earnest’s sister explains that no one asked questions; they just assumed Röbi was a good friend, although they knew that there was probably more to their relationship. The family’s heteronormative view and utter nonacceptance of Ernst’s sexuality causes him to hide his true identity from them – we later find out that Ernest does not come out to his family until his 70th birthday.
In contrast to the reaction of Ernest’s parents, Röbi’s single mother takes a completely different approach to the situation. She not only accepts her son’s sexuality, but she helps fashion his dresses for his drag performances. Röbi’s mother’s acceptance might explain his utter confidence in expressing his sexuality with Ernest, and on stage. The contrasting parental support that the two men received reveal a lot about their character and the importance of parental acceptance in the development of self-acceptance.
I would definitely recommend the film. The flip between documentary and drama brilliantly captures the evolution of gay rights in Switzerland from past to present. My only true criticism of the film is that is does not address intersectional relationships of oppression. Lesbian women were briefly mentioned, but the power hierarchies between men and women, and perhaps the different levels of acceptance and oppression, were never addressed. Overall, my experience attending the Reelout festival was inspiring. I believe more people need to be educated on the history of gay rights and oppression, in order to recognize how far we have come, but also how much further we still need to go. Although gay pride is a prominent trend in Canadian society, the rest of the world is not as accepting. Russian politics involving the discrimination and mistreatment of the LGBTQ community is a big topic of interest in the current global atmosphere. By adopting an accepting and encouraging attitude, like that of Röbi’s mother, we can fight to end the stigma surrounding homosexuality and make the world a better place to be – for everyone.
“The Circle (2014).” IMDb. Web. 7 Feb. 2014. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3148952/>.