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Interview: Director Stefan Haupt of "The Circle" 

Jose here. This year's Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film includes many films featuring gay characters or dealing with LGBT issues, one of them being Swiss entry The Circle, a documentary/drama hybrid that tells the story of the groundbreaking title publication, which became one of the most popular LGBT magazines in the post-WWII era. The film, opening in limited release today, focuses on the story of two members of the network that helped create The Circle, schoolteacher Ernst Ostertag and drag entertainer Robi Rapp, who not only survived the repression of the era (which included a serial killer who targeted gay men in Zurich) but eventually became the first same sex couple to get married in Switzerland.

I had the opportunity to talk to the film's director Stefan Haupt, about this landmark project and what Oscar could mean to help share this wonderful story. Interview after the jump...

Director Stefan Haupt

JOSE: You’ve done documentaries and fiction films before, so what inspired you to make this hybrid?

STEFAN HAUPT: Well the reason was the money. It’s as simple as that. This project came to me from the producers of Contrast Film in Switzerland, who asked me if I was interested in writing and directing a feature film based on the true story of Röbi and Ernst during the 1950s and 1960s. I read their treatment and it fascinated me, so I decided to do it. Originally it was going to be a Swiss/German co-production, but Germany didn’t come through with the money, so since we weren’t able to come up with the same budget, and we didn’t want to give up on the project, we remembered many of our friends had told us to do this combination of documentary and fiction. To be honest, it’s a format I don’t like that much, I have seen many television programs in which this format doesn’t seem appropriate, so it was a huge challenge to figure out how to turn this into one cohesive film. We had the script, we did the interview with Röbi and Ernst, we tried to put it together in the best possible way and we realized that more often than not, we’d have the emotional peaks come up not in the fiction but in the interviews. Listening to them tell the story allows you to create the images in your mind.

JOSE: I got the impression that you were using the reenactments to tell a more Hitchcockian story. I mean, we have the costumes, the aftermath of WWII, a serial killer!

STEFAN HAUPT: [Laughs] Thanks a lot, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say that and I don’t mind it, but to be honest it was not our intention. I usually focus on the content, and it’s a question of how best to tell the story. At the beginning of the film it was important for me for us to trust the story, to show people for example how Zurich was such a gay friendly city, to take the time to show how the Swiss were more open to homosexuality, and slowly to reveal that it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. It’s also about listening to Röbi and Ernst’s story and how The Circle stopped being safe for them at one time.

You’re from Zurich, so what was the most surprising thing you learned about your city when you went out and recreated parts of it from sixty years ago?

Two things, nowadays Zurich is considered to be gay friendly, we were the same state in Switzerland that allowed civil partnerships, our mayor is a lesbian, we have gay people in the city council and it’s not an issue at all. From that perspective I was surprised to realize that Zurich was a great place for gay people, German men for example would fly into Zurich Friday evening, enjoy themselves and then return to Germany on Sunday. But I was also surprised to learn about these terrible murders that were going on at the same time, and what they meant to the gay community, how the police started making lists with registered homosexuals, they collected their fingerprints and blood to check for syphilis. All of a sudden there were this horrible things and it’s surprising for me because the young people, gay and straight, have no idea that any of this happened!

"The Circle" won the Panorama Award and the Teddy Award at the 2014 Berlinale

That’s common in many countries, younger generations not knowing about the terrible things that have happened to minorities in the past. I’m sure that many people in the United States have no clue about the Stonewall riots for example, or about the endless fuck-ups Reagan pulled off during the AIDS crisis. Where do you want your film to stand in this global perspective?

We always discussed if we needed on a third level, to make hints about the current situation in other countries like Russia for example, but we were convinced that the people watching the film would be able to make the connections themselves. It’s unbelievable how the subject gained more actuality in comparison to seven years ago for example. To me homophobia is completely irrational, for example Röbi, Ernst and the producers were in Kiev a few weeks ago, at a film festival where we had the LGBT slot. We did a press conference and the day Röbi and Ernst left Kiev, the cinema where they had shown the film was burned down! They proved it was arson, at first authorities were unsure of who had done it, and then a few days later, a dozen masked men entered a movie theater where another LGBT film was being shown and threatened to beat the people! So it was obvious it was the same people. I don’t know how things like these are possible! It made it clear however, that it’s important to make films like this. I want this film to be for everyone, not only the gay community, because as Ernst says in the film “it’s all about love”. It’s not about focusing on the differences, but emphasizing the things humans share, we all want to love and be loved. I don’t usually talk about films with messages, but I want this message to come across in my film.

I read somewhere that your brother, who is openly gay, introduced you to Röbi and Ernst. So as a family member, how important was it for you to show the fact that many gay men who are shunned or rejected by their families, usually turn their friends into adoptive families?

I come from a very religious, evangelical family, so when my brother realized at age 24 that he was gay, he told me first, and for over a year I was the only person in our family who knew this. It was quite an intense time! I dreamed that I’d break down and told our parents, so it really affected me, also seeing my brother struggling with this. He eventually told my parents and they slowly started to accept him. They wanted to know what was different about him and my brothers. So Ernst was a very important figure for my brother during this time, I’ve known them for almost 25 years now actually, the funny thing is when the producers approached me to make this film, they didn’t know I knew their story so well. It was interesting for me to see how all the gay men stuck together and how they were so open to me, so while I’m not part of the community because I’m not gay, I’m part of the family through my brother. One of our proudest moments was winning both the Teddy Award at the Berlinale and also the Panorama Award.

Left: Röbi Rapp/Ernst Ostertag Right: Sven Schelker/Matthias Hungerbühler

Was it easier for you to find the right actors to play Röbi and Ernst, since you knew them so well?

Since the actors are playing younger versions of them, we didn’t have to compare them too much to who they are now, and Röbi and Ernst were very happy to see the film being produced so they were very generous and accepting. Matthias Hungerbühler who plays Ernst, went to talk to him many times and asked him many questions, not to imitate him but to get to know him. While Sven Schelker who plays Röbi chose another approach and only met him once, but identified himself with Röbi’s desire to be onstage. I have to say I also didn’t allow Röbi and Ernst to come to the set when we were shooting, because I wanted to protect the young actors and let them develop the characters.

The Circle was an art magazine. Nowdays what do you think is the importance of art as a way to bring forward social issues?

Art is a fantastic gift, a fantastic way for us to express our humanity, not bound by any ideological constructs, or religion, but in a very plain way, it allows people to express their inner selves. I don’t think The Circle was an artists’ club, even though many members were artists, but most of the members had other professions.

You’ve had a pretty successful run in festivals so far, can you comment on what receiving an Oscar nomination would mean for the film?

The most fantastic thing about a nomination, besides the recognition of our work, would be the recognition of Röbi and Ernst and their life achievement, not to mention the recognition of the gay rights movement and a reminder that we’re all human, no matter what our sexual orientation or skin color are...and of course a nomination would mean the film would be seen in more countries!

more foreign film coverage | previous interviews | more from Jose

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Reader Comments (2)

Such a wonderful film. I hope it finds a wider audience.

November 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Great interview, Jose. I really enjoyed this film, it's actually my favorite of the foreign language submissions I've seen so far.

November 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

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