The true-life gay-rights battle at the heart of “The Circle” is an unusual, underexposed one that merits either substantial documentary or riveting narrative treatment, so one can hardly blame practiced docu helmer Stefan Haupt for attempting to have it both ways. In telling the story of a shy young teacher and his drag-artist lover caught in the shifting social currents of 1950s Zurich, Haupt has chosen to stage proceedings mostly as handsomely mounted period drama, interspersed with present-day talking heads that include the now-septuagenarian protagonists themselves. The results, while never less than compelling, are predictably uneven: Affecting in themselves, the talking heads come to play as interruptions, holding the narrative back from deeper historical scrutiny. Still, its unconventional construction — and multiple Berlinale prizes — will make this an attractive option to LGBT-friendly fests and distribs.
Whatever their aesthetic limitations, the documentary interludes prevent “The Circle” from playing entirely as a period piece, which makes sense given the still-burning political currency of its subject matter. Would that its impressions of homosexual persecution and censorship in Europe half a century ago were more dated than recent events in Russia and Uganda make them seem.
The back-and-forth over Proposition 8 in California also comes to mind in a study of rights permitted before being retracted. In the wake of WWII, Switzerland was viewed as something of a safe haven for gay men, with no laws denying them sexual or social activity. Gay clubs flourished happily, notably the eponymous Circle, a “self-help organization” for gay intellectual and bohemian types, founded in 1942 by actor Karl Meier, that also published a multilingual, frequently provocative magazine. It’s at a Circle ball in the mid-1950s that naive literature teacher Ernst Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbuehler) becomes smitten with 18-year-old barber and moonlighting transvestite Robi Rapp (Sven Schelker), and the two fall swiftly into a profoundly affectionate relationship.
The present-day footage of the still-besotted Ernst and Robi — the film opens with the latter performing one of his signature drag numbers with creaky gusto — means the outcome of the film’s personal narrative is never in doubt. (Indeed, their romance dovetails nicely with a closing message celebrating the contemporary legalization of gay marriage.)
But there’s plenty of external tension elsewhere, as a spate of brutal murders within the gay community lead the authorities to an about-face on their once-liberal attitude to same-sex behavior. When the Circle’s income-generating socials are declared illegal in 1960, with the police placing increasing pressure on its leaders to reveal the personal details of all members, the organization becomes impossible to maintain. Surprisingly, it’s the formerly cautious Ernst who persists with dangerous acts of activism against the will of the more domestically inclined Robi. Their romance is sweetly articulated by the subjects and actors alike, but is most gripping as a catalyst for Ernst’s own self-acceptance and political awakening.
Even when the stakes are at their highest, there’s a gentle tone to the dramatic proceedings that is unexpected but not unwelcome — Haupt’s emphasis throughout is on the benevolent, supportive virtues of the gay community, even at its most threatened and compromised. (Though Ernst’s coming-out process was a long-term one, there’s refreshingly little angst in this department; Marianne Sagrebrecht is delightful as Robi’s sage, thoroughly accepting mother.) That prevailing tenderness is also suggested by Tobias Dengler’s softly burnished lensing and Federico Bettini’s pretty, mildly over-sugared score.
The opportunity for harder tonal contrast provided by the film’s documentary portions, however, go largely untaken: The testimonies of the elderly lovers are touching, but don’t reveal many circumstantial details or emotional nuances beyond those played by the capable, appealing leads. Other, more academic talking heads add little; at a tidy 100 minutes, the film’s portrayal of the Circle’s complex, intriguing social network could easily have been fleshed out at their expense.