The notion that documentary and drama should not be mixed is overturned by The Circle (2014), an ingenious and touching slice of little known gay history beautifully made by Stefan Haupt and the Swiss entry to the 2014 Best Foreign Language Oscar race. As the Second World War rages around it, Switzerland beamed like a beacon of a potential utopia for gay men oppressed in their neighbouring environs, German especially. There were no laws denying them sexual or social activity for instance, and gay clubs flourished unhindered. The pivotal organisation was the eponymous Circle, a ‘self-help organization’ for gay intellectual and bohemian denizens.
Founded in 1942 by actor Karl Meier, it also published a multilingual, provocative (for its time) magazine. At its annual ball in the mid-1950s, we are introduced to a couplement that will define a relationship that for many in Switzerland has become a beacon for gay rights and the normalisation of a love that still abides in its grounded beauty and determination. That said couplement is of a dilettante literature teacher Ernst Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbuehler) who finds himself enraptured with the 18-year-old Robi Rapp (Sven Schelker) – a barber by day and crossdressing chauntese by night. The dramaturgy enforces the manifest destiny of this relationship within a cultural time period that seems distinctly honest and with a purity that forgets the emotionally dishonesty of most relationship dramas.
In fact the placing of the aged Ernst and Robi leave a taste of authentic purity that is missing from similar narratives. The Circle doesn’t just rely on the focused deconstruction of its protagonists, but by portraying the milieu of a time and place is sharply brought to the present by the varied surrounding characters that support and hinder them. This powerful ensemble after its Berlinale premiere won both the Teddy and the Panorama Audience Award which has given it a life outside the German speaking world. That it hasn’t caught the attention in the end game of Anglo-Saxon award season is disappointing but the fact that it’s arrived at all is a fact to be savoured and encountered. LGBT cinema is routinely placed in a ghetto that is underserved and unwarranted. We should be looking at these clarion calls as cinematic pleasures that fit within and without many genres. The Circle is an undiscovered gem that constantly delights with its unshowy transference of an inherited blood debt that we finally are ‘beginning’ to honour.