Illustration by Ben Beechener
Twins are tantalising, both for artists and their interpreters: a dramatic conceit pregnant with possibility for anyone who fancies meditating on the duality of man. Or, indeed, of woman, as is the case in Ildikó Enyedi’s 1989 film My 20th Century: a film about twin sisters, both played by Dorota Segda, born in the late 19th century around the time that Edison invented the lightbulb. Separated as children, one, Lili, becomes a terroristic anarcho-communist, the other, Dora, a thieving courtesan, who luxuriates in the wealth of the men she attracts at the same time as she conspires to relieve them of it. They both happen to fall in with the same man, identified only as Z, who doesn’t know he’s dealing with two different women; eventually, the two sisters are reunited. In plot terms, not much more happens; but the narrative is only the starting point of this rhapsody for an age in which anyone with a finger on the pulse of progress felt they were careening inexorably into an entirely new future.
Since the film is a reflection on the beginning of the previous decade that was made and released at its tail end, it’s hard not to read the twins as ciphers for some corresponding conceptual dyad. Capitalist decadence versus revolutionary zeal? Cynicism versus idealism? Sexual promiscuity versus chastity? All of these readings probably contain a kernel of truth; all also risk reducing what is, at bottom, a deliberately vexed relationship, containing mysteries that resist unfolding. When the sisters are reunited during the last ten minutes, it’s in a hall of mirrors: a hint, perhaps, that any attempt to reconcile these two figures would only succeed in distorting them.
One of the best, and most unexpected, scenes in the film, builds on this notion. In it, Otto Weininger – a real-life figure, an Austrian ‘philosopher’ of sexual difference, whose mad book Geschlecht und Charakter was taken up with great enthusiasm by intellectuals in fin de siècle Vienna – gives a lecture at a feminist club. Though he begins by declaring his support for women’s suffrage, his standing among the women disintegrates from there, as he goes on to affirm that this political commitment is in no way incompatible with the belief that women are the intellectual and moral inferiors of men. All but foaming at the mouth, he proceeds to chalk crude anatomical drawings on a blackboard and denounce all women as “alogical” before he delivers his final, crazed rhetorical blow: “There’s no such thing as a woman.” There’s no doubt Weininger comes across as a crank, but I still wonder whether Enyedi might not be attempting to reclaim his conclusions for her own subversive purposes. The two women at the centre of this film are captivating, but their indeterminacy, enhanced by Segda’s dual role and Z’s confusion, makes you wonder whether, taken together, they’re more absence than presence; whether their doubling actually results in their cancelling each other out. Their behaviour either lacks logic or goes unexplained, and thus the narrative at times appears to drift into complete non sequitur, yet the wonder provoked by the film’s somewhat loose grip on reality suggests the conclusion that logic may not be the only fruitful aegis under which to live one’s life.
As a filmmaker, though, Enyedi is perhaps intent above all on celebrating the early 20th century as the epoch that gave birth to her own artistic medium. A short interlude, apparently unrelated to the bulk of the film, insists upon the vitality of cinema itself as an emancipatory form. A dog in a lab, the victim of an undisclosed technological experiment, is called to by the stars in the sky. These stars, featured throughout My 20th Century, are something like the angels at the start of It’s A Wonderful Life: they have disembodied voices that talk to and about the dog and, somehow, manage to play it a short film: a series of silent clips, many of them depicting modern tech novelties. Then, inexplicably, the dog is freed, and bounds across a verdant hillside, accompanied by swelling cinematic strings. Technology, then, is both the source of the dog’s misery and the tool of its liberation; the stars’ impromptu film screening has freed the dog in an unlikely deus ex machina, the point, possibly, being that cinema can deliver the hope which real life might preclude, but that part of the hope it offers is of escape from the world created by the same technological modernity that breathed life into film itself.
This ambivalence about technological progress delivers the film from naïvety about the era it ultimately wants to celebrate. Twentieth century technology is praiseworthy up to a point, but the mind can’t help but make the leap to its more awful manifestations: Nazi gas chambers, the American atom bomb. My 20th Century prizes the electrical innovations of Edison above all for the sense of wonder they evoke: the way they multiply the mysteries of the world, rather than exhausting them.
It’s arguable that the movie is more an exercise in style than anything else. Both twins – Dora sipping champagne in sumptuous period dress, Lili with her cartoonish cherry bomb – have a symbolic solidity that satisfies regardless of any wider message; this is a film that joys in indulging the medium’s sheer ability to depict. In that sense it exemplifies the kind of thing Susan Sontag demanded: form liberated from interpretation, an art that can tell stories yet remain free from the taint of discourse, in which the primacy of the images themselves matters far more than any net of words critics might try to cast over it. The last shot of the film reinforces its essential open-endedness: the camera following a river as it broadens out into the sea. A passage of Nietzsche’s comes to mind: “At last the horizon appears free to us again, even granted that it is not bright; at last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea’.” Enyedi’s 20th century is, perhaps, that open sea.