Ernst Ostertag and Robi Rapp were born four months and 24 kilometers apart in 1930 in Switzerland – Ernst into a stifling first class upbringing in Winterthur and Robi into a far more supportive working class family in Zurich.
So their paths to each other couldn’t have been more divergent.
By the time they met in 1956, Ernst was a teacher at an all-female private school in Zurich — where Robi was a popular drag performer. But despite their different lifestyles, the two quickly fell in love with each other and embarked on a lifelong romantic relationship.
Though Zurich was the escape for many gays, much of their activity had to remain underground as the gay community was still subject to raids, threats and being personally outed in newspaper articles. As a teacher on the verge of being confirmed for tenure, either occurrence could prove to be very career-limiting for Ernst – if not career-ending. Even the otherwise flamboyant, cross-dressing Robi kept up a far more straight-laced appearance on his day job as a barber.
This sociopolitical climate underscores the Ernst/Robi romance in the wonderful 2014 Swiss film The Circle – so named for the underground organization and publication that existed for 35 years with sister organizations in Germany, France, Scandinavia and Los Angeles (The Mattachine Society perhaps?) until its 1967 demise. Though similar organizations would later be far more politically involved and activistic (factors which contributed to the group’s decline) the greater purpose for The Circle at this particular time was to provide a safe place for gay men to be true to their own nature — as hinted to Ernst by Rolf, the organization’s founder.
And it was a relief for Ernst to have such a place, as evidenced by the look on his face when he received his invitation to the club’s autumn ball — where he would be introduced to Robi. After a brief courtship, their relationship took hold and developed. At the same time, Ernst became more involved in The Circle and eventually joined the publishing team of The Circle.
Their relationship hits its first point of contention when Robi pushes Ernst to introduce him to his family as he did to his – which Ernst eventually does, but not as his boyfriend. And when a series of murders of gay men (one of which was a member of The Circle) at the hands of rent boys put the gay community in a bad light, the police cracked down on their activities – leading to a second point of contention in Ernst and Robi’s relationship over moving ahead with the next autumn ball despite the dangers of doing so under these circumstances.
Things fell apart for The Circle when the police crackdown and smear pieces in the press resulted in more assaults and more raids – including one on the autumn dance where Robi was performing a song based on one of Ernst’s poems.
With no place to meet, a loss of subscribers and competition from more risqué publications in nearby countries with less restrictive laws, the Circle disbanded and The Circle ceased publication. Though the era of the Circle had ended, Ernst and Robi regrouped to publish a new magazine called Club 68 and went on about their lives as a couple.
The remarkably handsome Matthias Hungerbuhler and the striking Sven Schelker are very effective as Ernst and Robi. Their performances are all the more noteworthy considering Ostertag and Rapp appear as themselves in well-integrated parallel documentary interviews – a storytelling device unique to gay cinema (if not cinema as a whole).
The Circle does a great job of taking us back to a more repressive time in gay history (which continues in some areas of the world to this very day) – so much so that it’s infuriating to watch at times. I can’t imagine having to come of age under such circumstances. I can’t imagine having to live a parallel life knowing that if my cover is blown, it could cost me my job, my family and even my life – which is what happens to one of the other supporting characters.
While watching The Circle, I found myself asking the question of what were people really expected to do if they were gay during a time when there were terrible consequences for those even suspected of it. Get married? Sure, it looks good to society but the specter of being found out can’t help but to hang over such a marriage – so it’s a lose/lose for all involved.
At the same time, The Circle made me grateful to those who endured this oppression and to those who fought for my right not to have to. These are the people that The Circle reminds us to honor for their sacrifice and revere for their survival and longevity. And this is one of many reasons to watch The Circle.