The Circle — Switzerland’s Forgotten Homophobic Past

“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.

Der Kreis - Due for release on 23 October

Der Kreis – Due for release on 23 October

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.

The young Robi Rapp as portrayed by Sven Schelker

The young Robi Rapp as portrayed by Sven Schelker

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.

Children 404 – Film Disrupted by Antigay Protesters

“Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea. Understand that your morality is not law. Understand that we are you. Understand that if we decide to have sex whether safe, safer, or unsafe, it is our decision and you have no rights in our lovemaking.”

― Derek Jarman ―

Children 404, from producer-directors Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov, is a new documentary about LGBT children in Russia. The film takes its name from an online mutual support group for gay Russian youth, which in turn is a play on the common Internet error message (404 Page Not Found) that appears on screen when a page cannot be found. The title poignantly suggests that in today’s Russia, the LGBT youth are banished in a similar way that the recent anti-gay propaganda law bans the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors. (Last year, Russia ranked number one in teen suicides in Europe.)

Children-404, the Russian public internet project which supports LGBT teenagers in Russia.

Part of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to build an inward-looking and nationalistic Russia involves conflating homosexuality with Western culture in general, which lies at the root of Russia’s gay propaganda law that prohibits any positive information about LGBT people being distributed to minors. Since this draconian law came into force, the Russian LGBT community has been targeted with violence, intimidation and in some cases torture and even murder.

Children 404‘s premiere, on 23 April 2014 at the Moscow ArtPlay Centre, was disrupted by angry anti-gay protesters demanding to know if any minors where present and belittling “Western depravity”. The protesters, who were already in the audience, made their presence known with signs with slogans like “Get Sodomy Out of Russia” and “Western Depravity Must End”. Some also wore ribbons with religious iconography.

During the disruption, police checked the identification of attendees, after protesters claimed that minors were in the audience. This turned out to be a false claim, because no minors were present, so no law was broken. The film resumed, and the Heinrich Boell Foundation (a non-profit organization striving to promote equality) held a discussion afterwards. According to Colta, an arts group that backed the film, the audience offered “cheerful resistance” to the antigay demonstrators with some attendees describing the disrupters as “professional trolls.”

Children 404,will also be showing at this year’s Hot Docs film festival in Toronto.

Images: Children 404 Image logo
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes