Monday, June 23, 2014

The Circle (2014): The History of Gay, Swiss Edition

The Circle (2014)
(aka Der Kreis)
dir: Stefan Haupt

SIFF 2014 Film #20

I'm guilty of being America-centric when it comes to my knowledge of gay history. I know a lot about the history of being gay in America, including pre-Stonewall, and I know about Germany's infamous Paragraph 175 (which has a good documentary, btw). But, I had never heard about Der Kreis (The Circle), a magazine of gay fiction/erotica and photography that also served as a communication underground.

In Switzerland, being gay wasn't illegal. But, it was still frowned upon. Being outed as a homosexual could end your career, and also bring around harassment. But, still, one could distribute material in plain brown envelopes, as long as it passed the censors, and one could throw big gay balls that were seasonal gay megaparties.

To give the history of The Circle a human element, and also to demonstrate how this is not the complete story, Haupt infused the movie with a romance between two men, Rapp and Ostertag, who met at a ball one night, where Rapp was performing as a drag queen. They fell in love, and their relationship sustained the years as they're the characters telling the story in modern times.

Haupt made The Circle with a structure of blending docudrama recreations and actual modern day interviews of Rapp and Ostertag, filling in some of the holes with other interviews of journalists, family members and ex lovers of people who were part of The Circle. The recreations take up the bulk of the film, but the interviews are fascinating, especially since Rapp and Ostertag are two of the cutest 80-year-old gay men you could ever meet.

The Circle goes through the full story of The Circle, from how it was started all the way through how it was destroyed by constant harassment from the police after a series of murders rocked the gay community. While there is probably a certain amount of dramatic license taken, Haupt wisely uses the interviews to keep the maudlin dramatics grounded in reality. There are police beatings, and suicides, and harassment, all of which are representative of larger movements in the gay lifestyle at the time.

The balance between the modern talking heads and the maudlin dramatics really gives The Circle a freshness that few docudramas and period pieces have ever reached. The importance of The Circle is highlighted by the tale of survival of the two talking heads. The weight of the situation is balanced by the sweetness. But, really, the interview/re-enactment format is taken to new levels in The Circle, feeling like the an answer to the new dilemma of Fact/Fiction/Faction in the documentary genre.

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