★★★★★ | The Circle, aka Des Kreis

Even though he led a very closeted life, Ernst Ostertag went out in public to a gay ball held by The Circle Magazine and met and fell in love with Robi Rapp, a drag act who was performing there that night, who would later become his life partner. The year was 1956, and the city was Zurich, and although homosexuality was not illegal in Switzerland, gay men were not only just ostracised by society but also lived in real fear of losing their jobs and being shunned by their families.

This hybrid of a movie: part documentary & part fiction is the true story of how this chance encounter would survive all the pressures of an intolerant and bigoted public, and the harassment of the police and authorities, to become 60 years later, the first ever same-sex couple to have a Domestic Partnership registered in Switzerland.

Back then Ostertag was a young and somewhat naive French Language teacher at a Girls School who risked the wrath of the Principal by wanting to introduce his pupils to avant-garde work by Albert Camus. Off-duty he discovered the existence of The Circle, a gay erotic art and poetry bi-monthly magazine that was the first if it’s kind in Europe when it was founded in 1942. The magazine was sold by subscription only and the membership list was heavily guarded at The Circle’s office, but occasionally the publishers organised get-togethers, like the Ball that Ostertag met his man.

The murder of one of their number served as a thinly disguised excuse for a campaign of persecution by the Police whose biggest weapon was exposing the men publicly for being gay. It was enough to cause Ostertag’s School Principal, a married man with two children, to take his own life.

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This is a fascinating glimpse into a post War War 2 mixed fortunes of a gay community in Europe before the onslaught of freedom that was about to occur with the swinging 1960’s (although maybe not quite in Switzerland). Rupi’s mother was very theatrical and not only acknowledged her son’s sexuality but also welcomed his lover into the family with open arms, whereas Ostertag’s conservative parents were so very formal and cold, that he never came out of the closet to his sister until he was 70 years old.

The movie which so excellently portrays all the emotional stress on these young men who struggled to come to terms with their own sexuality, works best with the dramatised flashbacks thanks to some masterly performances, particular by the two lead actors playing the lovers Matthias Hungerbuehler and Sven Schelker. The interviews with the present day Ostertag and Rupi, now in their 80s, are extremely touching, but really add little to the narrative itself.

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‘The Circle’ aka Des Kreis won both the prestigious Teddy for Best LGBT Documentary at the Berlin Film Festival, where it also picked up a coveted Panorama Audience Award too. I think it is surely set to become a firm audience favourite too when it does the Film Festival rounds now.

Highly recommended.

About the author: Roger Walker-Dack
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