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‘The Circle’ Review: Switzerland’s Oscar Entry Finds Drama in Truth and Vice Versa

Docudrama follows a real-life Swiss octogenarian gay couple as two fine actors portray their love story in the repressive 1950s

“The Circle” (“Der Kreis”) is a startlingly effective mix of drama and documentary, combining both interview footage of longtime lovers Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp and the dramatized story of how they met in the 1950s as part of the social scene created by the gay literary and cultural journal from which the film takes its name.

As “The Circle” begins, with drag and domesticity, we see Röbi and Ernst as they are now — a longstanding love that contains the big flourishes of musical theater and the small movements of ironing — and flashing back to the ’50s. With Sven Schelker playing the young, applause-hungry Röbi and Matthias Hungerbühler as the closeted, shy Ernst, we also get to see the challenges and conflicts that forged their seemingly effortless love.

Directed by Stefan Haupt, “The Circle” also tells the story of the gay community in Zurich in the ’50s and ’60s and how that community changed as the stance of Zurich’s city fathers and cops went from benign neglect to active discrimination. A combination of literary journal, arts publication, social organization, office space, and activist community, The Circle offers a physical and intellectual nucleus for the city’s gay community, as well as a place to schmooze, cruise, and enjoy musical revues.

Ernst is cautiously excited to find The Circle, even as he’s advised against formally joining until he gets his teaching certification: “Our kind and school; a bad combination.” The absolute opposite of Ernst, Röbi isn’t especially interested in The Circle’s politics; he just likes having a crowd to sing for. But a glance becomes an interest, and a haircut becomes a seduction, and the two are soon lovers, if not quite yet in love.

KREIS-Filmstill05Both relative newcomers, Schelker and Hungerbühler are excellent, and the script (credited to Haupt alongside Christian Felix, Urs Frey and Ivan Madeo, with Sabine Pochhammer credited as “script consultant”) makes them rich, rounded characters. Yes, Ernst is repressed and uptight, and Röbi is joyously flamboyant, but it’s Ernst who fools around, not Röbi, and Röbi’s openness comes not as a way to lash out at repressive parents but, rather, flourishes thanks to an understanding mother, played by veteran actress Marianne Sägebrecht (“Bagdad Cafe”). As Felix — a good-looking socialist who constantly wants more from The Circle and from life — Anatole Taubman is a standout in the ensemble.

Many elements distinguish “The Circle,” but first among them is the love story between Ernst and Röbi, whether it’s what they share on camera in the real present-day version, or as depicted by the excellent, committed Schelker and Hungerbühler in the past. It’s the kind of relationship where the ideological arguments are inseparable from the lovers’ quarrels, where the world outside the relationship is just as much as a challenge as the smaller world inside it. Haupt is at his best when working with his actors, and this ensemble, not just his leads, flowers under his attention.

The financial constraints of “The Circle” are perhaps a little too visible on-screen; there are no urban exterior shots wider than an alleyway that aren’t from archival footage, and every curtain in every room is always drawn to avoid the modern world intruding.

It feels petty to knock the production values of a film with emotional, intellectual and historical truth like this, though, and it should; from its backroom politicks to its bedroom activities, “The Circle” has a sincerity and an honesty that shames far more expensive but over-polished dramas. Plenty of movies have happy endings; “The Circle” shows you both the happy ending and the incredibly hard work it took to get there.