“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
— Malcolm X —
World War II was a bleak time for LGBT people in Europe. Gay men in particular suffered open and often brutal persecution by the Nazis, with many perishing in concentration camps.
However, given Switzerland’s policy of political neutrality and tolerance it’s no surprise that homosexuality was decriminalised in 1942. This meant that, even during WW2, Switzerland had a thriving Gay community. In fact, many people are not aware that during the 30s, 40s and 50s Switzerland was by far a pioneer in terms of gay rights and allowing homosexual relationships.
Having said that, as LGBT people we know all too well that legal ‘privilege’ and social tolerance is a far cry from complete acceptance… even today, many of us still find ourselves often pulling on the shorter end of the social hypocrisy stick. A case in point is the docudrama The Circle (Der Kreis), which is due for release later this year.
The Circle (German with English subtitles) tells the true story of a Zurich gay club and magazine, called Der Kreis, which was founded in 1942. Der Kreis — a membership-only group — published a bimonthly illustrated magazine with pictures, stories, articles and gay art. There was official state censorship back then, which allowed full-frontal nudity in drawings but not photographs. The magazine by-passed censorship laws by printing illustrations and drawings, and racier texts were written in Shakespearean language, which the censors and even Karl Meier, the founder and editor-in-chief of Der Kreis, couldn’t read. The magazine was delivered in neutral envelopes, with Meier closely guarding the subscription list.
Along with the magazine, Der Kreis also organised get-togethers and special costume balls where their members could meet and mingle. To further protect the identities of their members, membership cards featured just numbers and no names, and most of their social events were held underground. Suffice to say, despite the fact that the law offered relative security to the Gay community in Switzerland, it was largely based on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach and social intolerance remained a hold-over. It’s safe to say that personal attitudes took longer to change than the laws of the land.
The film’s director, Stefan Haupt, beautifully reconstructs this era in careful detail as he follows the real-life story of schoolteacher Ernst Ostertag — a naïve young French-literature teacher — and drag singer Robi Räpp — a hairdresser by day. The couple met and fell in love at one of Der Kreis‘s costume balls, in 1956. Shortly afterwards, both Ostertag and Räpp are targeted when police implicate the underground activities of Der Kreis and its gay subculture in a spate of murders among gay rent boy.
The police threats to the Gay community and raids on Der Kreis increase (similar to the witch hunts seen in some countries today) when the murders start to make headlines, resulting in acerbic and homophobic articles appearing in the mainstream press. This puts Ostertag at risks of being exposed as a gay man, putting his unconfirmed job as an educator in jeopardy — a potential embarrassing scenario for Ostertag’s bourgeois and stiff upper lip family.
Young Räpp, on the other hand, finds comfort and support from his widowed German mother, who worked as a cleaner and a theatre wardrobe lady. She embraces and accepts her son’s homosexuality and even helps to make the dresses for his drag performances.
The film eloquently illustrates the many hurdles a same-sex couple who simply wanted to be together had to jump through in the 1950s. The documentary element comes into play when Ostertag and Räpp are featured, in their old age in the present time, throughout the film in talking-head segments as they reminisce about leading conflicted public and private lives. They reflect on the impact of living in a society that, while nowhere near as officially punitive as Nazi Germany, still persecuted those whose lives were deemed inappropriate.
During one of the interview segments the couple argues about how long it took Ostertag to finally introduce Rapp to his parents. Ostertag did not come out to his family until his 70th birthday, even though he lived with Räpp since the 1950s and it’s rather poetic that in 2003 Ostertag and Räpp become the first Swiss couple to register as same-sex partners. Their struggles and having lived through decades of changing attitudes is at the very least a testimony that they are in some ways the guardian angels of the collective memory of the Gay movement of German-speaking Switzerland.
The Circle boasts a stellar cast, with Matthias Hungerbuehler as Ernst Ostertag, Sven as Robi Räpp and Marianne Saegebrecht, who is excellent in her bit part as Räpp’s mother. The film won the Teddy Award for best documentary with LGBT themes as well as the Panorama Audience Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. It is due for release 23 October 2014.