Before the Stonewall riots, gay liberation movements and recent campaigns for marriage equality, Der Kreis (The Circle) was a radical proposition. A bi-monthly magazine, it included homoerotic images, essays, articles, and a letters page written for and by gay men. An underground gay movement crystallised around the publication. Elaborate balls were organised around the magazine’s subscribers and promoted in each issue. These secretive gatherings were the only places most gay men could be open about their sexuality within the secretive and coded post-war Swiss society. It began publication in 1932, survived the rise of Nazism and the Second World War and flourished in the 1950s.
Based in Zurich, Der Kreis had a subscription base of around 2,000 people, 700 of whom lived outside Switzerland. Its impact was felt as far away as Los Angeles where the Mattachine Society’s One magazine started publication in the early 1950s.
In parts both a documentary and a thriller, with a love story at its heart, this is the Swiss entry for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It focuses upon an overlooked episode in the history of sexuality. Although Switzerland did not criminalise homosexuality in this era, gay men and women still lived in fear that their sexuality would be discovered. The film is effective at highlighting the impact of social stigma upon the various workers who make up Der Kreis. Teachers, airport workers and editors lived in fear that their sexuality would be outed.
The film’s protagonists, and real life narrators, Röbi and Ernst, provide a human face to the complexity of sexual relations in this era. Röbi’s mother accepted her son’s sexuality and welcomed his relationship with Ernst. Ernst remained closeted for most of his life and came out to his siblings only after his parents had passed away.
Many of the older patrons, including the Rolf, faced oppression in Germany under Paragraph 175, which outlawed homosexuality until 1969. Zurich was an attractive place to gays and lesbians across Europe. Germans would fly in on Friday night and return on Sunday. However, Swiss society, like others, remained a deeply closeted and dangerous place. This is highlighted in the film when a series of homophobic murders shook Zurich while Der Kreis was at its most successful.
The police quickly set about scapegoating The Circle as a nefarious, perverted group who welcomed rent boys and murderers to their meetings.
This film will interest anyone who wants to look beyond well-covered narratives of gay liberation, to an earlier period where activists bravely fought to find others like themselves in a context of social oppression.
The film’s focus upon Röbi and Ernst humanises the struggle for gay liberation, but by skipping forward to their later lives it leaves gaps in the LGBT experience from the paper’s closure in 1967 until today.