Monday, November 17, 2014

Narrative & documentary join as one in Stefan Haupt's entrancing history lesson, THE CIRCLE

Of late we're seeing more and more "re-creations" used in documentaries -- acted-out narrative moments, often entire scenes -- that goose the story along. Sometimes these are done well enough to almost pass by unnoticed (as in some of James Marsh's films such as Project Nim); at other times -- as in Holocaust-themed docs like Orchestra of Exiles or No Place on Earth -- these can seem more than a bit ham-handed and distracting. The new Swiss movie THE CIRCLE (Der Kreis) manages to bypass this problem entirely by embracing it completely: Stefan Haupt's new film is half documentary and half narrative, with the two beautifully woven together to make something that seems original and exactly correct for the subject it tackles.

That subject is the tale of two men living in Switzerland during and after WWII who become lovers, and the relatively small group of homosexuals of that time, dedicated to educating the general public, around and in which the two gravitate. As directed and co-written by Herr Haupt (shown at left), the film is helped enormously by the presence of the two men, still alive and kicking, who inspired the story: Ernst Ostertag and Robi Rapp  These two, lovers still, are shown as they are today (two photos below), while two attractive and talented actors -- Matthias Hungerbühler (at left, on the poster above and in the still below) and newcomer Sven Schelker (at right, above and below) -- play their younger selves in the narrative portion, which takes up more than half of this 102-minute movie.

These clear divisions, which turn out to meld quite richly and beautifully, actually give the movie more of a sense of "reality" than we sometime get from documentaries that pretend to be "truth" but then fudge things in various, sometimes less obvious, ways. The Circle is a hybrid doc that wears its manipulation proudly, and its great big heart on its sleeve.

The cultural state of Switzerland in the 1950s is articulately and genuinely rendered here -- it seems to me, at least, who was certainly not present at the time -- as not much better nor worse than most of the rest of the Western world at this time. Though homosexuality per se was not a crime in Switzerland, homosexuals themselves were pursued as though it was. And because the attitude of the general populace was negative, all this was accepted as perfectly fine.

The history of these two men, as well as the little group that they join -- The Circle of the title-- is captured in smart, lean strokes that tell us much while moving the plot along. Ernst, above, center, is a teacher who's up for "approval" and so must keep his sexuality hidden, while Robi, below, is a female impersonator (and a good one -- as is young performer Schelker), whom Ernst sees one special evening and is immediately smitten.

We meet the co-workers, friends and relatives of both men and learn how prejudice -- their own and others -- has affected them all. What a pleasure it is to see again German actress Marianne Sägebrecht (below, right, of Bagdad Cafe), here playing Robi's wonderfully caring mother.

The rest of the large cast, mostly unknown to me (we don't get that many Swiss films over here) are all on point and up to snuff. Their "unknown" quality, in fact, gives the movie just that much more of a documentary feel. The sub-plots -- Ernst's boss at his school is perhaps the most closeted gay of all, and this plays out in ways both expected and not -- are both germane and well-handled, avoiding the overly melodramatic at every step, while still maintaining our interest and good will.

The Circle -- Switzerland's probably very canny selection for Best Foreign Language FIlm in this years Oscar race -- is indeed a feel-good film, but it is also one that earns its status. Considering all that has happened to this pair over more than half a century, not to mention their deserved renown in Switzerland today, these men have every right to feel good -- grand, even -- and so will you, once you've seen their film. (The pairs, real folk, together with their actor counterparts, are shown below.)

The movie, via Wolfe Releasing, opens this Friday in New York City at the Quad Cinema; it will hit L.A. a month later on Friday, December 18, at Laemmle's Music Hall 3.

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