Stefan Haupt’s pseudo-documentary The Circle examines the lifelong romance between two men, Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp, and the ways it intertwined with the rise and fall of a groundbreaking Zürich organization dedicated to fostering gay community and erotic expression.
That group’s magazine, Der Kreis, circulated internationally for more than 30 years, lasting through the intense censorship of the World War II era and well into the more free-spirited ’60s. This is a fascinating and often tumultuous story, which Haupt chronicles through a mixture of interviews with the real Ostertag and Rapp (now married, they appear as a pair) alongside dramatized vignettes that, as the film wears on, feel like annoying interruptions.
Haupt’s reenactments give voice to figures who can’t represent themselves in interviews, notably the unhappily closeted director of the school where Ostertag teaches, whose life collapses after his secret is revealed. Still, it feels counterproductive to place these staged sequences in competition with the more subtle archival images and firsthand documentary accounts.
Government institutions are shown enacting insidious forms of repression — a sinister detective warns that though homosexuality is legal in Switzerland, it’s also perfectly legal to keep an official registry of names — and there’s a grim fatalism to Haupt’s portrayal that couldn’t be achieved without somber-faced actors and gloomily lit interrogation rooms. But no amount of production value reveals as much about humanity as the real-life Ostertag’s recollection of loading Der Kreis‘s English section with borderline-pornographic content, a prank at the expense of censors known only to read French and German.
A more focused approach may have left room to develop such mutinous humor — and to give this tale the lively, multi-layered account it deserves.