UBC Faculty Research and Publications

To Be Gay in 1950s Zurich : [film review] Frackman, Kyle May 27, 2016

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©	2016	Kyle	Frackman.	Made	available	under	a	Creative	Commons	License.	Published	on	www.kultur360.com.		“To	Be	Gay	in	1950s	Zurich”	Kyle	Frackman,	The	University	of	British	Columbia			Swiss	director	Stefan	Haupt’s	2014	film	Der	Kreis	(The	Circle)	mixes	genres	in	its	docudramatic	portrayal	of	lives	and	circumstances	around	the	important	magazine	of	the	same	name	in	1956	Zurich.	The	film’s	treatment	of	the	magazine’s	seldom-discussed	role	in	Swiss	and	gay	history	comes	primarily	from	the	vantage	point	of	two	elderly	gay	men,	Ernst	Ostertag	and	Röbi	Rapp,	who	appear	as	themselves	in	one	of	the	film’s	interwoven	tracks	and	are	played	by	professional	actors	in	the	other.		Der	Kreis,	Switzerland’s	official	submission	to	the	2015	Academy	Awards	for	the	category	of	Best	Foreign	Language	Film,	fits	into	a	mode	of	cinema	that	could	lead	to	unsavoury	results.	The	docudrama,	as	critic	Tara	Brady	sharply	observes	in	her	review	of	the	film,	“conjures	images	of	bad	TV	docs	padded	out	by	unconvincing	extras	doing	things	in	unconvincing	period	garb.”	Fortunately,	such	a	fate	does	not	befall	Haupt’s	film,	which	had	been	originally	conceived	as	entirely	a	dramatization.		Der	Kreis	is	essentially	a	love	story	between	Ernst	and	Röbi	that	coincides	with	the	zenith	and	nadir—and	eventual	dissolution—of	the	magazine	and	eponymous	social	club.	Ernst,	a	soft-spoken	and	partly	closeted	young	teacher	(played	with	tender	confidence	by	Matthias	Hungerbühler)	navigates	the	vital	yet	contained	gay	community	of	Zurich	at	this	time.	At	one	of	the	club’s	evening	balls,	Ernst,	who	comes	from	a	conservative	bourgeois	family,	is	fascinated	by,	and	meets,	drag	performer	Röbi	(played	by	Sven	Schelker).	The	two	quickly	become	a	romantic	item.			At	the	time	Zurich	was	a	well-known	destination	for	gay	travellers	or	nearby	residents	in	central	Europe,	especially	Germans,	at	least	partly	because	it	did	not	explicitly	prohibit	same-sex	sexual	activities.	But	club	members’	lives,	including	Ernst’s	closeted	and	married	principal	(played	by	Peter	Jecklin),	are	complicated	by	a	number	of	murders	of	gay	men	in	the	late	1950s,	like	that	of	composer	Robert	Oboussier.	The	film	portrays	the	police	investigation	to	find	the	killer	through	interrogations	and	occasionally	intimidation	and	blackmail.	Reluctant	to	inquire	into	what	they	saw	as	a	controversial	community,	the	police	are	not	shown	to	be	the	friends	of	the	gay	community,	although	they	at	first	have	respect	for	the	founder	of	Der	Kreis,	Rolf,	who	acts	almost	like	a	mayor	of	gay	Zurich.	We	see	that	this	crisis	contributes	to	the	decline	and	closure	of	a	magazine	that	had	become	almost	quaint	among	Europe’s	growing	number	of	erotic	publications.	Röbi’s	mother	is	nothing	but	supportive	and	accepting,	a	brief	yet	warm	performance	by	Marianne	Sägebrecht.	Along	the	way,	Ernst	and	Röbi’s	relationship	experiences	ups	and	downs,	although	we	know	from	the	present-day	Ernst	and	Röbi	where	the	men	of	the	past	are	headed	and	how	their	story	will	end	up.	Ernst	and	Röbi	themselves	become	the	first	Swiss	couple	to	enter	into	a	registered	domestic	partnership	when	these	became	legal	in	2007.			Depictions	of	these	plot	points	could	easily	have	turned	out	poorly	at	worst	or	inelegantly	at	best.	It	is	without	question	an	important	undertaking	to	depict	these	historical	concerns	and	the	situations	involving	the	suppression	and	disavowal	of	homosexuality	in	all	©	2016	Kyle	Frackman.	Made	available	under	a	Creative	Commons	License.	Published	on	www.kultur360.com.		societies	and	time	periods.	The	subject	matter,	however,	can	tend	toward	melodrama	and	cliché	in	dramatizations.	Der	Kreis	could	easily	have	offered	its	story	in	a	simpler,	while	slightly	more	conventional,	form.	Its	two	tracks,	“then	and	now,”	could	have	delivered	its	dramatizations	of	the	1950s	and	1960s,	on	the	one	hand,	and	the	interviewed	recollections	by	Ernst	and	Röbi,	on	the	other.	Instead,	Haupt	took	a	different	route	and	elected	to	provide	even	more	context	to	these	men’s	lives,	a	move	which	pays	off	well.	In	an	interview	with	the	Film	Society	of	Lincoln	Center,	Haupt	says	that	the	film’s	style	posed	a	challenge,	because	he	didn’t	want	the	two	tracks	to	become	“two	separate	films.”	In	its	present-day	track,	the	film	deviates	from	the	simpler	incarnation	of	these	men’s	past	and	present	lives.	We	see	excerpts	of	interviews	with	four	other	individuals,	including	journalist	Klara	Obermüller	and	Ernst’s	sister,	Christine	Baumberger-Ostertag.	Archival	footage	of	1950s	Zurich	or	riots	in	the	early	1960s,	for	example,	fills	out	the	“documentary”	track	of	the	film,	making	it	more	robust	and	more	intriguing,	both	in	itself	and	as	a	part	of	the	larger	work.	Skilled	production	design	and	arrangement	of	sets	and	costumes	enriches	the	“dramatization”	track.			Much	of	the	film	is	delivered	in	medium-long	or	long	shots,	which	naturally	situates	the	characters	in	their	context	without	overemphasizing	their	environment.	The	majority	of	the	scenes	are	shot	with	handheld	camera.	Unlike	in	the	scene	in	which	Ernst	brings	Röbi	home	to	meet	his	family,	where	the	stable	camera	can	also	reflect	the	stilted	discomfort	of	everyone	in	the	shots,	it	is	not	always	clear	why	some	of	the	remaining	scenes	deviated	from	the	majority	handheld	approach	and	use	stationary	or	mounted	cameras.	This	can	leave	the	viewer	with	a	feeling	of	inconsistency	and	randomness	which	may	detract	from	the	storytelling.			The	treatment	of	Der	Kreis’s	history	is	welcome	and,	in	fact,	overdue,	in	light	of	the	publication’s	influence	and	importance	in	central	European	gay	rights	and	culture.	The	magazine’s	multilingual	nature,	containing	as	it	did	works	in	German,	French,	and	English,	likely	contributed	to	its	popularity	as	circulation	grew	in	the	late	1940s	and	1950s.		While	the	periodical	and	the	organization	that	published	it	were	far	from	obscure	prior	to	the	appearance	of	Haupt’s	film,	the	latter	has	encouraged	new	interest	in	the	history	of	the	era	and	the	singular	circumstances	of	its	context.			

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