Saturday, July 2, 2016

Stefan Haupt | Der Kreis (The Circle)

the far side of paradise
by Douglas Messerli

Stefan Haupt, Christian Felix, Ivan Madeo, Urs Frey (writers), Stefan Haupt (director) Der Kreis (The Circle) / 2014

Stefan Haupt’s 2014 film The Circle is not yet another story of how homosexual life was squelched by the culture of the 1950s as much as how it was betrayed.
     Zürich, Switzerland, the city in which most of the film takes place, unlike Germany, reeling from its Nazi days, is a country which permitted gay activity. While the US was prosecuting homosexual behavior through the paranoid activities of figures such as Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and John Edgar Hoover—the latter two self-hating homosexuals themselves—Zürich was a seemingly welcoming city, with gay bars, and, at the center of this film, home to an active gay magazine and its subscribers, Der Kreis (or The Circle), each subscriber having a code name.

Yes, gays still had to hide their identities. Even the young hero of this tale, Ernst Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbühler), a teacher at a girl’s school, is advised that it might be better not to subscribe to the magazine, headed by the wise and open-minded Karl Meier (who hid his true identity under the name Rolf) until after gaining his teaching certificate: it would be more difficult, Meier suggested, to then fire him from his job. 
     Yet the magazine, heavily censored for its contents, founded in 1932, when the Nazis had wiped out Berlin’s former gay activity, was able not only to publish regular issues, but had gained an international reputation, attracting numerous gay figures to the city, and even sponsoring various gay balls, in which, so this film’s director suggests, allowed open sexual activity, including bathroom sex with the so-called “rentboys,” for who elderly clients, including Ernst’s conservative school principal, Dr. Max Sieber (Peter Jecklin) paid for sex. Meier himself sought to present a “high-minded view of homosexuality,” and tried to encourage long-term relationships, views against which some of his promiscuous associates chaffed.

      At the first ball he attends, Ernst is overwhelmed by the performance a drag- queen performer,  Röbi Rapp (Sven Schelker), whom he cannot believe is truly a male. He loses the bet, and quickly falls in love with the 18 year old boy, daring to visit him at the barber’s shop where the boy works. 
       Fortunately, Röbi’s mom, the always wonderful Marianne Sägebrecht (remember her in Sugarbaby and Bagdad Café?) has no problem with her son’s sexuality nor with his new friend/lover. Ernst’s parents, however, are another matter, and even though he finally allows Röbi to meet them, it is a painful event and he remains—at least to them and his school colleagues—quite closeted. 
       The film does not deeply explore his reasons for becoming more and more involved in Kreis circle itself, but Ernst gradually devotes more and more of his time to the magazine and its organization, even daring to courier a new issue into the dangerous German environs, where his friend, Emil, is arrested.
       Worse, however, is that another of their friends is murdered in his bed by a “rentboy;” and when yet a second event occurs, involving, tangentially, the school principal—who, when his wife discovers his sexual identity, leaves, him children in tow—commits suicide, the police close down the balls and intrude into the “Circle” member’s lives. A local gay bar event, at which Röbi again performs, is raided, with most the attendees arrested.

      Despite these terrible events, however, Röbi and Ernst’s relationship survives, as the director reveals through real documentary interviews with the actual figures and others who live still today. The elderly, nicely tailored Swiss couple, retelling the story that is replayed by the younger actors gives this film a completely different dimension, allowing us to imagine them as the beautiful young people they were and the adventurous lives they lived even as they appear as the frail older figures from another era. It’s even more wonderful to hear that they were the first Swiss gay couple to be married after the country allowed gay marriage.
      Surely, most countries might reveal far more terrifying tales of gay prejudice and brutality. But the fact that even the far more enlightened Switzerland had its own dark days demonstrates the difficulty of gays everywhere, and the problems facing gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people even today. 
       Der Kreis, finally, ended in 1967 when Danish and other Scandinavian countries began publishing far more provocative nude-oriented gay magazines in the mid-1960s. I was there at the age of 16. In Copenhagen in 1964, I ogled the gay magazines at the newsstands, marveling at their totally open expression of gay sexuality. In Zürich, with my parents, come to bring me home from year abroad, I remember seeing posters—which may have been created by The Circle group—inviting one and all to another of their balls. My eyes certainly were opened, although I didn’t quite want to admit it to myself at the time! It would take me two or three years to realize just what I had witnessed.
       So, finally, watching The Circle the other day, I recognized just how many had worked and suffered to take me where I was destined to go.

Los Angeles, July 2, 2016

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