So Strange, by David Bax
It’s hard to say whether Stefan Haupt’s The Circle is a fictionalized account of a true story featuring extensive interviews with the real-life subjects or a documentary that includes extensive dramatizations. It’s pretty evenly balanced between the two recognizable formats. It’s an exciting and commendably unconventional approach but Haupt fails to make the two sides seem of a piece with one another. Other than detailing roughly the same events, the drama and the documentary don’t line up aesthetically or emotionally. What we end up with is a very interesting account of a chapter of Switzerland’s recent history that ultimately fails to penetrate beneath the surface of either its subjects or its audience.
Haupt’s best use of the twin formats comes when one of his subjects in the documentary portion is leading us up the stairs of what was once the locale of many galas thrown by The Circle, an internationally distributed magazine, based in Zurich and made by and for gay men. The camera looks down at the stairs themselves and then cuts to the fictionalized portion, apparently shot on the same location, where we see the actor playing the young version of the man who was just talking, dressed in a tuxedo and ascending into his first Circle ball. This transition is straight out of James Cameron’s Titanic and it’s one of the few times The Circle feels truly cinematic.
That introduction to the semi-secret but warm feel of Zurich’s 1950s gay community has magic in it but Haupt has preemptively tempered it with a dose of reality. When Ernst (the man climbing the stairs in both past and present) subscribes to the magazine and, as a result, joins the club, he is cautioned. Switzerland, unlike Germany across the border, has no laws against homosexuality. But that doesn’t mean things are safe. Ernst is a schoolteacher, a profession that tends to bring out the straight world’s strongest and least rational fears about homosexuals. So when we see Ernst walking into the gala, we know that he has found a home but we also know how much he’s risked to do so. It’s at this first event that Ernst meets Robi, the drag performer for the evening who will become his partner and eventual husband, even unto the present day.
Things only get riskier when a series of murders, in which the victims are gay men killed by prostitutes, turns the spotlight onto the happy but clandestine community. The Circle has nothing to do with these crimes but that hardly matters to the authorities, who are eager to put both under the gay umbrella. Police begin questioning The Circle’s founder, Rolf, asking him to turn over the names and addresses of his subscribers. They forbid any more social gatherings. The Circle goes from being a social club to unwittingly becoming an activist group.
It’s a fascinating tale anchored by the present-day Ernst and Robi, a charming and adorable couple. But every time we slip back into the dramatizations, we have to readjust. Some scenes feel like dutiful transcriptions of what Ernst and Robi have already told us; others clash. A subplot involving the headmaster at the school were Ernst teaches is never once mentioned by the interviewees, giving the strong impression that it’s invented. And young, fictionalized Ernst seems a lot more conflicted than the older, real Ernst describes himself. It’s this dissonance that makes The Circle two good halves that can’t seem to form a whole.