By Joseph R. Castel
Back in November, I received an invite to the Los Angeles’ Swiss consulate for a poolside press junket in honor of the two docudrama darlings of the indie film, The Circle—Switzerland’s official Best Foreign Language Film submission to the 87th Academy Awards.This Oscar contender is the inspirational true account of Switzerland’s first legally wed couple, ErnstOstertag, 85 and Robi Rapp, 84, who met in 1956. At the core of this film is a deeply moving love story, a testament to gay marriagethat may well become an LGBT classic.
When Ernst meets drag performer, Robi, at an underground cabaret, its love at first sight. Although homosexuality is legal in Switzerland in 1956, it’s still socially unacceptable and Ernst must be discreet in his liaisons with Robi or risk losing his teaching position. The couple and their friends soon become the center of a criminal investigation when a series of gay murders take place in Zürich. Both of them are arrested for violating newly established anti-gay ordinances. The constant police harassment jeopardizesthe couples’ livelihoods as well as their romance.
It’s not often I get invitedto lunch at the Swiss Consulate so I have no idea what to wear. Everyone will be in a tie and jacket—boring. I choose my late father’s vintage button down suede sweater in tribute to the era in which the film takes place. Arriving early, I get the charming couple all to myself in the stately mansion. Robi just loves my sweater as it reminds him of the trendy clothes he and Ernst wore in the fifties. The sweater breaks the ice and we chat away as if old friends.
He confesses that being in Hollywood for the first time is like a dream. “It’s so surreal to be here,” he gleefully confides. “I grew up watching all the movie actresses, the great legends.In my shows I’d imitate them and now here I am,” he proclaims with a grateful smile.
How did the couple feel about seeing actors portray their lives up on the big screen? “We held onto each other’s arms as we cried and laughed, but we had no idea if other people would feel the same way we did or ifthe film would be a success,” says Ernst. The retired school teacher proudly admits, “When I saw the actor playing Robi, I fell in love with him all over again.”
A reporter asks the film’s director, Stefan Haupt, why he wrote a gay love story, and he adamantly refutes, “It’s not a gay love story, it’s a love story period. There is no wrong or right love. There is just love and that’s how I approached the film.”
What really makes Haupt’s film so unique is that his film is a well crafted fusion of scripted narrative with actors and on-camera interviews with the actual subjects.
Docudramas or reenactments area risky cinematic venture that typically comesoff as hackneyed and amateurish. Not since Warren Beatty’s Reds (1980) has a director been able to deftly balance the two genres with such artistic and dramatic competence. Haupt is very honest with me on why he chose to blend the narrative drama with live interviews, “Money,” he confesses.
The producers were unable to raise the money for the entire production, so filming the real live subjects was the most cost-effective way for the director to complete the film.
The interviews with Robi and Ernst are just as compelling as the scripted drama and they enhance the engaging storyline with their historical nuances.Watching the couple interact with one another as they admit their fears, passions and shortcomings is truly endearing. It’s like gay reality TV meets Brokeback Mountain—in the Swiss Alps. The movie has been a film festival favorite picking up numerous honors, including the Jury Award at L.A.s Outfest.
If the Academy votes for The Circle as one of the nine Best Foreign Language Film nominees, the couple vows to be in attendance to walk the red carpet on February 22. “After all these years, it’s hard to believe this is happening,” says Robi as he sips his white wine. Right now, they are having the time of their lives flying around the world like VIPs promoting the film.
As the luncheon draws to a close, Robi and Ersnt gather for one last photo op in front of their movie poster. I’m about to ask them what’s the secret to their longevity, when Robi accidentally falls backwards over a flower bed, crashing through a pool house plate glass window.
As we hold a collective gasp, they quickly propRobi back up—no broken bones, cuts or abrasions—just a little shaken. They brush bits of glass from his jacket while he gingerly resumes his position next to his concerned partner.They continue posing for the eager photographers. What a trooper! He’s really going for that Oscar gold.
After the hubbub dies down, Ernst gently takes Robi by the arm and quietly quips, “You’re such a drama queen.”Robi agrees with a gleam in his eye. I smile to myself, therein lies the answer to my question about their enduring love.