"The Circle," Switzerland's official foreign-language film submission for the Academy Awards, is a richly absorbing historical docudrama revolving around Ernst Ostertag and Robi Rapp, who in 2003 became the first same-sex couple to enjoy legal recognition in Switzerland.
The couple's story began in Zurich in the mid-1950s, at a time when homosexuality, although not illegal in the city, was hardly accepted by the mainstream. The pair — Ostertag was a teacher at a girls school, Rapp a young drag performer — met through a pioneering gay group called Der Kreis (the Circle), which from 1942 to 1967 published an underground magazine and held covert parties for its subscribers.
Director Stefan Haupt, who collaborated on the script with Christian Felix, Urs Frey and Ivan Madeo, seamlessly mixes engaging present-day interviews with the two, now octogenarians, with full-blooded dramatic reenactments, set in the 1950s and '60s, of Ostertag (portrayed by Matthias Hungerbuhler) and Rapp's (Sven Schelker) stirring tale of romance and oppression.
These re-creations, which also spotlight such characters as Der Kreis' chief editor (Stefan Witschi), Ostertag's deeply closeted boss (Peter Jecklin) and Rapp's supportive mother (Marianne Sagebrecht), are deftly mounted and performed — every bit worthy of their own feature film. (The string of rent-boy murders that came to complicate Der Kreis' existence could itself be the basis for a solid period thriller.)
Meanwhile, the real-life interviews, peppered with archival clips and photos as well as chats with several other era observers, also could be effectively expanded into full-length documentary form. It's terrifically valuable subject matter.
"The Circle" well deserves its place in the Oscar lineup.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. In German and French with subtitles.
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.