So we had Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Churchill, Attlee, Eisenhower, Truman, Hirohito and Oshima all show up one way or another, but in the end the real life historical figure who had the most actual lines in Blackbird was a somewhat obscure Swiss actor named Karl Meier, who under the alias ‘Rolf’ was one of the most important figures in European gay history.
A gay and lesbian magazine called the ‘Swiss Friendship Banner’ had been founded in Zürich in 1932, focusing primarily on advocating for reform in Swiss law regarding homosexuality. In 1942, the same year that the new Swiss Criminal Code decriminalised gay sex between persons aged over 20, Rolf took over as senior editor of the magazine and changed its name to ‘The Circle’ (Der Kreis in German). Under his editorship the magazine’s content became exclusively for gay men and moved away from political advocacy and towards cultural sharing and the promotion of friendship and social connection. There were subscribers receiving the magazine all over the world, including men living in Nazi Germany during the war.
Rolf had a very solid idea of the notion of the ‘ideal gay man’ and ideal gay culture, valuing long-term, monogamous partnerships and emphasising friendship, romantic love and artistic aesthetics rather than focusing on sex. His ideas were largely reflected in the content published in The Circle, which in no small part helped them stay in the good graces of the Swiss media censors. However once the magazine added an English section alongside its German and French content in the early 1950s, English-language writers could generally get away with being a bit more risqué, provided they sanitised the content in translation for both Rolf and the censors!
The Circle was also a social club which held regular functions in Zùrich, which only served to bolster the city’s status as the effective gay capital of Europe at the time. It was particularly popular as a destination for gay Germans, who continued to be prosecuted under Paragraph 175 and whose persecution by the Nazis went unacknowledged.
Readership began to decline in the 1960s, partly due to the increased popularity of Scandinavian gay magazines, which didn’t have to deal with the strictures of Swiss censorship, and eventually ceased publication in 1967, although several members of its editorial staff launched a new magazine together the following year. At the loss of his vocation of nearly a quarter of a century, Rolf reportedly had a nervous breakdown and had to be cared for for the remainder of his life by his long-term partner Fredi.
I don’t normally hype up my sources on these posts, but in this case if this subject interests you at all I highly recommend checking out The Circle. It’s a 2014 Swiss docudrama which tells the story of Röbi Rapp and Ernst Ostertag, the first same-sex couple to marry in Switzerland, who met each other through The Circle in the 1950s. It suffers from the usual issues of docudramas in that the re-enacted bits don’t always mesh that well with the talking heads bits, but honestly the real Ernst and Röbi are such freaking adorable old marrieds that I could get past it. Gay cinema is so often neglected, especially if it’s not in English, and this one in particular tells a really important and little-known story.