In case there was any doubt that Stefan Haupt was doing something timely in making “The Circle (Der Kreis)” it went up in smoke on the night of October 30th after a screening in Kiev.
After touring the world with the hybrid docudrama about the titular underground journal in Zurich that documented the gay social scene between the 1930s and 1960s and formed an organizational backbone for the gay community that had to hide their sexual orientation out of fear of being arrested or killed, Haupt had gone to Ukraine as part of the Molodist Film Festival where the film screened at the Zhovten movie palace. While there were protests before the screening, the director left the festival unharmed. Still, he learned a night later, the same couldn’t be said of the 80-year-old Zhovten movie palace where the film was shown.
“Twenty-four hours later homophobic people burnt the cinema down,” says Haupt. “But the [audience] there after the film were in tears, [saying] ‘We are now at the point where you have been 50 years ago and the film shows us a way out.”
Despite all the great strides that have been made for gay equality in the seven years since the film has been in development, Haupt has heard time and again that the film, which details the prejudice faced by Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp, Der Kreis contributors who became the first gay married couple in Switzerland, is disturbingly contemporary. That’s why there is an added resonance in the way Haupt presents their story, mixing in present-day interviews with the schoolteacher (Ostertag) and cabaret performer (Ropp) in parallel with a dramatization of their youth during the Third Reich, a unique format where the past informs the present and vice versa that only came about due to financing issues. While all three were in Los Angeles to celebrate being selected as Switzerland’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, they spoke about their travels, the unexpected perfection of Haupt being the director of this particular film and what it was like to revisit the past that may sadly not be all that distant.
Stefan, how did the movie become something you wanted to make?
Stefan Haupt: There were two producers from Contrast Film in Zurich who asked me if I would be interested in writing and directing this film and they had a very clear vision. It would be based in the late ’50s, early ’60s and we would try to do a co-production with Germany. That was the starting point seven years ago. But financing was a huge problem. We got the Swiss money, but not the half that we needed from Germany, so we had a very hard time thinking what to do with the project? Do we have to let it go? We felt the story was important to tell and so interesting, so we came up with this idea of trying to marry documentary parts [with the] fiction parts. Then we had to redo the whole process of financing, but only with Swiss money, so we ended up with this.
For Ernst and Robi, was a film something you had been interested in?
Ernst Ostertag: Yes, of course. Right from the beginning, we wanted to have our story made as a movie and the two producers are in the same gay organizations we are in, so we met and told them about this story. But this was a long, long time ago and eventually, we had a long talk and all of a sudden they came and said, “Well, we have a director and we’d like to introduce you.” It was Stefan, who we knew from long ago and we always thought if somebody could make this film real as we would love to have it, that’s him, nobody else.
Stefan Haupt: The funny thing is when the producers asked me, they did not know that I’ve known Ernst and Röbi for 25 years, because my oldest brother is gay and knows them quite well. At some family or birthday parties, we got to know each other. So many things just fell in the right place.
It sounds like the mix of documentary and dramatization was inspired by financial reasons but was it inspiring creatively?
Stefan Haupt: It should have been a fiction film all the way through and to be honest, I normally don’t like that format that much. Very often, I’ll feel they made a documentary and it was too boring, so they reenacted scenes to make it look bigger. I started to realize that with us it was a different process. It was forced on us through money, but now I’m happy about it. I really wanted to [have] fiction and documentary that didn’t overlap too much in the meaning and that the two levels have the same importance somehow, so I learned from other people that had done this before and we came up with the idea of editing the documentary parts first. Then with a cameraman, I would go very closely to each point where we change [from documentary to drama] and look how could we make [the transition] as smooth as possible. We also [paid attention] to what was being said and the sound levels, so that we interweave it as much as possible. Our aim was that at the end, you forget which side you are on and it’s just one film.
Did shooting the interviews give you more focus for the dramatic portions?
Stefan Haupt: Once I had written the whole script, I asked the producers if I could film a long interview with Robi and Ernst — two days when we would go through every scene of the written script and have them comment on it or tell their memories. At that time, we were not thinking [about the film as] docufiction, but we would have the transcription and I could work with the script to really rewrite a new way for the story [to be told].
For Ernst and Röbi, what is like to see your life re-imagined in this way?
Ernst Ostertag: It was fantastic. It was something totally new and shocking at the same time because it was part of our lives, but it was 50 years ago. So we were deep in the moment and [after time] it was almost forgotten, but not quite.
Röbi Rapp: We had also the big chance to read the young actors who played our roles, so we got to know them very well, and it was not strange, it was really natural how they [played us]. We like it very much and how this all is just coming out.
Ernst Ostertag: When we saw the film the first time, all of those details [from the past] came up and we shivered and we held each other, and sometimes we laughed, because it was an up and down of emotions and it threw us around. But it was fascinating. Just after [seeing it] we tried to ask the other people who were there how they felt, and they felt similar to us.
What was it like to dig up the old Circle magazines and the photographs that find their way into the film?
Ernst Ostertag: Röbi went through our archive and found the photographs.
Röbi Rapp: Over the many years, I collected photos and the main reason to make this film was to show this magazine Der Kreis [The Circle] and how it was the good time, but also how the situation breaks later.
Stefan Haupt: The real magazines were a huge help. Everything comes alive. Matthias Hungerbühler, the blonde actor who plays the role of Ernst, went into the archives and you could tell that he could take something from that. For us to know that the magazines or the photographs that they’re using or reproducing for the film is all real material changes the way the actors work because they know this is not just based on a true story, this is [actually] true and they get to talk with Robi and Ernst. That helped us.
There is also a song that Röbi gets to perform in the film. How did you go about selecting it?
Röbi Rapp: This song was written in 1937 for an actor in the organization Der Kreis and he sang it just once. On his 80th birthday he came to us, we had coffee and talked and he brought me the notes written by hand for this song and he says, “Now you have to do it.” So in my cabaret program, I’m now the older one now who sings this song.
Stefan Haupt: So it’s a little fictionalized when we say that in the film Ernst wrote the lines [in the film], but the true thing about this song is that it has only been sung in The Circle. Nobody [else] knows about this song — only Röbi had the notes to it — so we thought it’s so special.
What’s it been like to take this film around the world?
Ernst Ostertag: It was a huge gift that we got selected to go to the Berlin Film Festival for the world premiere and that won they the Teddy Award and the Audience Award [there]. We were the first film to win both awards and that was such a huge gift because that had been our aim — to make a film for all people, not just for the gay community. I believe the film has the same importance for the so-called heterosexual part of society [as it does for the gay community] because it’s talking about love, which affects all of us. It is a very profound feeling to see that people in Berlin might be crying and have been so touched by the story, but also in Torino or The Castro Theatre in San Francisco. They can all relate to the story because they have their own stories going with it. That’s made me personally very, very happy that you can touch the people at so many different places.