My Twentieth Century

Ildiko Enyedi’s My Twentieth Century (1989) begins in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1880, as Thomas Alva Edison demonstrates his invention of the electric light bulb to an enraptured crowd. An enormous array of light bulbs, gleaming all over an architectural structure something like an enormous jungle gym, glows with a thousand points of light like a second heaven. Soon enough, we see the stars of the actual heaven; whispered voices from the stars urge us to look eastward, all the way to Budapest, where a young woman is giving birth to twin baby girls, named (in titles above their heads) Dora and Lili.

The voices from the stars will continue as a motif throughout the film; meanwhile, we cut from one scene to another, spanning the globe. In Burma, a white explorer tells his “native guide” about the wonders of Edison’s displays of light in America. In Hamburg, a man tells his companions that he is from Hungary; the others dismiss this as an imaginary country, perhaps invented by Shakespeare. We return to Budapest to discover Dora and Lili, now seven, selling matches in the midst of a snowstorm; the entire sequence is visually reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s silent film The Little Match Girl (1928). The girls finally fall asleep, with heads together, lying against a fence. Two top-hatted gentlemen come up; they flip a coin, then each of them takes one of the twins, and they head off in opposite directions.

I’ve described the first few minutes of My Twentieth Century in such detail because it is the only way to give even a slight sense of what the film is like. Shot in highly luminous black and white, and set (after these introductory sequences) in Budapest and other parts of Central Europe, just at and shortly after the turn of the century (from the 19th to the 20th), My Twentieth Century could be described as a sort of Hungarian equivalent of Latin American “magic realism”, except — though this may be no more than what has to be the case, when Garcia Marquez’s Columbia is exchanged for Enyedi’s Hungary, or when the novel as a medium is exchanged for film — that My Twentieth Century‘s fantasmagoria is altogether more spectral, more hauntological, than that with which we are so familiar from South American fiction. The ghosts of old Europe continue to stalk through the fabulous inventions of modernity, even as Enyedi makes what is perhaps the first post-Communist film by hearkening back to the pre-Communist world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Film itself — another astounding modern invention for which Edison can claim at least partial credit — is, of course, a part of this fantasmagoria. One striking scene in My Twentieth Century shows a movie house, with an audience seated in front of not one, but a whole series of screens (each of which is illuminated by back-projection, by a series of projectors on the other side of the screens from where the audience sits), showing subjects that range from Lumiere-like documentary to Buster Keaton comedy to objects that are entirely anachronistic (like a helicopter– something that evidently didn’t exist in 1901 or 1905). My historical knowledge about early cinema is extremely limited; but I don’t think that films were actually shown like this, in the first decade of the twentieth century (or at any other time, for that matter). But the multiple screens fit in with other evocations of the mystery of images, and of the history of cinema, throughout My Twentieth Century. Most notably, there is the funhouse hall of mirrors — recalling Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai — near the end of the film, when the two sisters are finally reunited.

Most of the film, after the introductory segments, involves the adventures of the now adult Dora and Lili (both played by Dorotha Segda, who also appears as their mother when they are infants), around the turn of the century. Dora is a stylish fake aristocrat; she uses her sexual charms to live off various men. She manages both to charm everyone (the audience as well as her men), and at the same time to make the throes of sexual passion appear (to the audience, if not to the men involved) pretty much ridiculous. In one highly amusing sequence, she steals some expensive jewelry by convincing the jeweler to deliver the items to her at an address which turns out to be a mental asylum; she convinces the rather creepy, proto-Freudian asylum director that the jeweler is her brother, who is in desperate need of psychiatric treatment to cure his out-of-control obsession with diamond necklaces. In this way, as also in her more direct seductions, she performs a kind of feminist jiujitsu, turning the very sources of patriarchal power (psychiatry, phallic authority, the sexual ‘double standard’) against the men who wield that power.

Lili, on the other hand, is a bomb-throwing anarchist terrorist. This means that she is not at all stylish, but rather a woman of the people. She is highly moral, where Dora is cheerfully amoral. In the language of feminine stereotypes, Lili is the “virgin” to Dora’s “whore.” Lili directly protests the political conditions that Dora inverts to her advantage. In fact, Lili’s terrorist acts are more symbolically expressive than they are actually effective; her “politics of the deed” is actually a politics of images. She bombs the movie theater, but fails to kill the Minister who was her target. Later, she confronts this Minister face to face, but cannot bring herself to actually throw the bomb. Perhaps her grandest moment is when she shimmies up a tall, phallic factory smokestack, in order to rain down political leaflets upon the crowd below. For this she gets sent to Siberia (another deliberate anachronism, since Austria-Hungary and Russia were scarcely political allies in 1903); but the voices from the stars guide her safely back to Budapest.

In the course of the narrative, Dora and Lili both become involved, unbeknownst to one another, with the same man, identified only as Z (the Russian actor Oleg Jankovsky). Z is first seduced by Dora, who romps in bed with him after stealing the money in his wallet. Subsequently, Z meets Lili in the park, and — thinking she is Dora — propositions her. Lili does not disabuse him — in fact, she doesn’t speak at all — but follows him back to his chambers, disrobes, and services him, as if his voice had put her under some sort of hypnotic spell. It’s hard to say who is deceiving (or using) whom, at this point. It’s only in the funhouse hall of mirrors, towards the end of the film, that Z learns of the deception, when he sees both sisters together for the first time (though he cannot be sure this isn’t just some sort of mirrored deception). Dora and Lili fall into each other’s arms; all the time since they were separated at age seven is abolished. Their bond with one another evidently means more to them both, than any relationships either of them might have with any men. I am inclined to say that here — if I may (ab)use Lacanian parlance — the Symbolic order altogether collapses; it is just too ridiculous to endure. But the “Imaginary” order that replaces it (with all those mirrors, and with the dual female protagonist) is not the morass of narcissism that those Lacanian moralists are always sternly warning us against. It is rather a zone of play, and of imaginative creation; it is the realm of Freedom, as opposed to the (capitalist and patriarchal) realm of Necessity. There is no narcissism here, because the “subject” of this playful freedom is always (at least) two, rather than one. Dora and Lili, in their mirrorings of one another, which also means (according to the film’s non-binary logic) their differences from one another, are reminiscent of the two “Maries” in Chytilova’s Daisies, and of the eponymous heroines of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating.

Almost precisely in the middle of My Twentieth Century, there’s a sequence in which Otto Weininger — author of the notorious, over-the-top misogynistic rant Sex and Character, a book that was an intellectual sensation in its day, and (inexplicably?) had a profound impact upon such crucial figures of Central European modernity as Freud, Kafka, and Wittgenstein — gives a speech to the Budapest Suffragette Society. The ladies applaud boisterously when Weininger declares himself in support of giving women the vote; but this changes to hisses, disapproving looks, and walkouts when Weininger goes on to speak, more and more hysterically, about the inferiority , irrationality, and sexual voraciousness of Woman, who can only enact the roles of Mother or Whore. Lili sits in the audience; the camera keeps on returning to her. As Weininger gets more excessive and outrageous, Lili looks ever more stricken and ashamed. She has internalized the oppressive duality enunciated and theorized by Weininger (rational Man versus irrational, affective Woman), and feels subjected to it even though it doesn’t characterize her at all (she is largely rational, which is what gives a disturbing edge to her submission to Weininger’s judgment, as it does as well to her almost hypnotic submission to Z’s seduction). This is precisely why she has dedicated herself to fighting against male and capitalist domination politically — submitted to the Law, she can only transgress it. Nothing could be a sharper contrast to Dora, who laughs at the masculine Law while using it opportunistically for her own ends.

With its crucial placement in the center of the film, the Weininger sequence defines the issues at stake in My Twentieth Century as a whole: the place of women in modernity, with its promises of liberation and invention — promises that were largely not kept in the years beyond the confines of the film: years with the horrors of two world wars, and of Nazism and Stalinism. The promise of political emancipation, like the promise of miraculous changes from the new technologies of the late 19th and early 20th century, was still, in 1989 — as it is still today — an unfinished project; and My Twentieth Century works both to give an exhilarating sense of those promises, and a mournful reminder of their failure.

I am perhaps running the risk of making My Twentieth Century seem more linear than it actually is. The film’s logic is anarchic and associative; its sense of the marvelous is largely created by its continual digressions. On the one hand, these digressions often concern technological inventions. On the other hand, they often involve animals, which are associated with women by Weininger’s misogynistic logic, as well as by the experiences of captivity and confinement that women and animals share. At one point, we see a dog cooped up in a laboratory, with a strange formation of wires attached to its head. (Presumably the dog is a subject of Pavlov’s conditioning experiments, which were conducted precisely at this time). The voices from the stars pity the dog’s suffering, and release it from the lab; a long sequence follows in which the dog runs freely out of the city and through country fields. Later, there is a sequence at the zoo, in which a chimpanzee, apparently able to talk, recounts to Dora and her male companion the woeful tale of his captivity and exile, locked behind bars in the Budapest zoo, far from the jungle of his youthful freedom. (The story seems to echo Kafka’s “Report to an Academy”). There are also sequences with a magical donkey and with homing pigeons; and citations of cooperation among animals, taken from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, written by the Russian anarchist in opposition to Social Darwinism (there is also a more ominous citation from that book, something about rabbits that play together so joyously that they forget to be afraid of the fox).

If the freedom and captivity of animals is one “line of flight” followed by the film, another is technological invention, and the consequent rrise of globalization. Just as the film begins with Edison’s electric light bulbs, so it ends by coming back to Edison, who demonstrates the power of the “wireless telegraph” by sending a message around the world, from station to station, until it returns back to him. As with Edison’s previous appearance in the film, this demonstration is equal parts wonder and hokum. We see the various stations, around the globe, at which the message is received and passed on, in a dead-on parody of the “telephone” montage sequences in 1930s Hollywood films. My Twentieth Century doesn’t ridicule, though it does point up, the naivete of both early-twentieth-century technology and classical cinema. Rather it simultaneously affirms wonder and disillusionment.

After this latter Edison sequence, the film goes backwards in time, returning first to the 7-year-old twins, and then to the mother holding them newly born. We have seen the (somewhat flourishing) actualization of modernity’s dreams, with only subtle hints of the disillusionment that was to follow. Now we return to the moment of pure potentiality –what Deleuze would call the virtual — the point (in time and space) at which all that energy, all that potentiality, was just at the point of its emergence, still mostly in suspension, so that all sorts of hopes and possibilities could be looked forward to, with heightened anticipation. The future, then, was open; now, of course (the filmmaker’s “now” of 1989, or our “now”, watching the film in 2007) it has been closed.

The film ends with a long, mysterious, brooding tracking shot; the camera glides slowly down a river or (more likely) a canal, with foliage on both banks, but no human beings in sight; then it reaches a larger body of water (a lake? the ocean?), extending to the horizion, though with islands (or some sort of land) in the distance. The camera continues out across the water. Mournful classical music plays on the soundtrack. We are left with a film that is contemplative and surreal, beautiful rather than sublime, and that is earnest and playful, hopeful and comedic and disillusioned, all at once. My Twentieth Century evokes a time of exalted, and ultimately disappointed, hopes; it was made at a time that was also one of exalted, and ultimately disappointed hopes, when “actually existing socialism” was not so much overthrown as (in Hungary, at least) it simply faded away into irrelevance. The film might be described as mock-nostalgic: it probes the depths of time, in order to evoke, not a past that never was, but a future that never was. What use might we find for it now, in postmodernity’s eternal Now, when things are changing (both socially and technologically) so quickly that we cannot keep up with them, and yet every potential, every future, already seems exhausted in advance?

3 thoughts on “My Twentieth Century”

  1. It’s funny how much this sounds like you’re writing about “Against The Day” at times, especially at the end. (but also in the details: turn of century, Edison, the mirror stuff, anarchism, the quite Pynchonesk liberation of the Pavlovian Dog, etc.)

  2. interesting how weininger’s idea of expressing gender in percentages (I am 70% male and 30% female), which seems to me connected to freud’s idea of polymorphous perversity, found its way into kommodified kapitalist seks as sexual preferences being presented in percentages:

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