To recount the experiences of a group of gay men in 1950s Europe, director Stefan Haupt has melded narrative and documentary, resulting in more dramatic potential than on-screen power. Sure, a couple decades ago, that mix was standard for cheapo “re-creation” crime shows – exceptional films like The Imposter have not only legitimized the practice, but upped the ante. Haupt shows glimpses of using the device with inspiration and impact, but The Circle has plenty of unrealized moments too.
Part of the filmmaker’s challenge is that his subjects’ story is somewhat unremarkable – well, compared to what we’re used to seeing in documentaries about oppression and freedom. The Circle (aka Der Kreis) was the name of an underground social group and its infamous publication created by, and written for, gay men. The year was 1958 and homosexuality was generally shunned, so The Circle was cloaked in anonymity, the journal mailed in unmarked envelopes to readers identified only by membership numbers. Two of the men involved in The Circle – cross-dressing singer Röbi Rapp and straight-laced teacher Ernst Ostertag – meet, fall in love, and, as we quickly learn from Haupt’s real-life interview footage, spend the rest of their lives together.
Yes, the story of Röbi and Ernst is interesting and lovely, and sometimes sad and frightening. But in this era of rapidly expanding gay rights, there are a million stories in the naked city (sorry), involving everything from horrific abuses to triumphant cultural gains. The events of The Circle are somewhere in there, seemingly more a representation of a decades-long movement than a big pivotal presence. And we all know that movies and movie audiences generally love those massive turning points (think anything from Milk to Dallas Buyers Club). Anything less can feel almost gentle and quaint.
But I suppose that sedentary tone rings true for The Circle. The real-life Röbi and Ernst, now soft-spoken white-haired husbands, reminisce about their lives like a pair of nice grandpas talking about the old days. Whether they’re recalling their early romance or being roughed up by cops, their delivery rarely wavers – it’s as if they’re exhibiting the level of control they were forced to exercise back when it was far more dangerous to be gay.
Haupt could press harder, but most of what we get is generally bland. As he cuts regularly from the documentary interviews to the period recreation, Haupt dabbles in match edits and dramatic rhythms, but the effort feels unsure. The rapid passage of time, a surefire way to drive an audience’s emotion, is barely touched. Yet it could have been conveyed in a blink.
We do get a glimpse of what could have been during a dinner scene at Ernst’s stuffy parents’ house. Haupt’s camera slowly dollies past the main characters, gliding over the table to settle on Ernst’s sister, who stares silently ahead. Suddenly, the real-life sister begins a voiceover about that moment, in what is easily the most effective and satisfying transition of the film.
With plenty of ignorance and hatred still present across the world, the story of The Circle is a strong cautionary tale – not surprising that it’s Switzerland’s official Best Foreign Film entry for the 2014 Oscars. Ultimately, Haupt, a practiced documentarian, should have probably presented the entire story as a documentary. Seeing and hearing the real Röbi and Ernst carries more weight than watching their acting counterparts.