Switzerland’s Best Foreign Film Oscar submission goes full circle

Swiss co-writer/director Stefan Haupt’s The Circle (Der Kreis) is a strong fact-based drama about the struggle for gay rights in Switzerland. Well made and heartfelt, it is Switzerland’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards and winner of the Panorama Audience Award at 2014’s Berlin International Film Festival, the Teddy Award at 2014’s Berlin International Film Festival, and of the Grand Jury Award at 2014’s Outfest Los Angeles.

The film’s title refers to an actual gay self-help organization that arose in 1930s Zurich, founded by the renowned St. Gallen-born actor Karl Meir (who used the pseudonym “Rolf” and is portrayed onscreen by an avuncular Stephan Witschi). The group’s activities included publishing a multi-lingual magazine called “The Circle” and operating a gay bar which provided a regular meeting place and venue for annual costume balls which took place during the 1950s (when most of the story is set), attended by up to 800 homosexuals who traveled from all around Europe to dress up and dance.

(This pub is now the site of Neumarkt Theater, where live stage plays are currently presented. Nearby is Zurich’s ancient Jewish section plus a historical plaque commemorating the hundreds of Swiss women who went to Spain in the 1930s to fight against Franco and fascism and for democracy and liberty during the Spanish Civil War. Who knew? Well now you do.)

At the heart of The Circle is a true-life love story between teacher Ernest Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbühler) and cross dressing performer Robi Rapp (Sven Schelker). Throughout Haupt’s film the narrative is intercut (or some might say “disrupted”) by contemporary interviews with the actual Ostertag and Rapp, talking heads who are now elderly gentlemen. The departure from feature format to documentary style was due to financial constraints, according to helmer Haupt. Some may find Haupt’s mixture of techniques to be jarring, while other viewers will presumably think it enhances this gay liberation saga’s veracity. In terms of film form, perhaps the hybrid Circle is closest to the docudrama. In any case, it has qualified for Oscar consideration.

We see the organization experiencing its ups and downs, as do Ostertag and Rapp and their relationship. The long-term romance of the educator and drag artist, through thick and thin, appears to be admirable and is reminiscent of the love between John Lithgow and Alfred Molina’s characters in the recent feature Love is Strange, as well as 1978’s La Cage aux Folles and its 1996 Hollywood version The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, and Gene Hackman.

The Circle also calls to mind a great pro-gay play presented in 2011 at L.A.’s Blank Theatre called “The Temperamentals.” In that drama American gay rights pioneer Harry Hay is also shown to have been a card-carrying, dues-paying Communist Party member. Similarly, in The Circle, motorcycle-riding Felix (played by Anatole Taubman, who has matinee idol looks) is a hothead pushing for equality and a Marxist, whose confrontational tactics clash with those of the more moderate, older Rolf. (In an interview Haupt told this reviewer that Felix is actually a fictitious character. Haupt added that although he himself is not gay, his brother is, and went on to say that all people, straight and homosexual, should support equal rights for everybody, irrespective of sexual preferences.)

In 2012 Haupt directed the documentary Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation, about architect Antoni Gaudí’s iconic, unfinished late 19th-century Barcelona church. His films have been awarded prizes, including the Swiss Film Award for Best Picture, in addition to dozens of nominations and accolades across Europe. Haupt’s next feature film project is Finsteres Glück (Dark Bliss), based on Lukas Hartmann’s eponymous novel. Haupt’s oeuvre demonstrates that Swiss cinema is a filmic force to be reckoned with on the global scene.

The Circle was “the mother of European gay organizations.” Why did it thrive for decades in Switzerland? Because this Alpine nation is a bastion of neutrality and democracy that was never conquered by Hitler’s hordes. Of course, that doesn’t mean this group didn’t run into its fair share of opposition.

What Ostertag and Rapp went on to do later in life set a precedent in Swiss history (no spoiler here). Both of these gay icons attended a party in their and the film’s honor at Swiss Consul-General Jean-François Lichtenstern’s residence in Los Angeles. Of course the grounds include a swimming pool and guesthouse, and during the crowded luncheon Rapp fell through a plate of glass that broke into a thousand pieces. Nevertheless, with much aplomb he arose and emerged without a scratch. Now in his 80s, Robi Rapp is still literally shattering glass ceilings.

The Oscar-worthy The Circle is being theatrically released in about 10 cities nationwide.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.