“We live in the flicker”, Joseph Conrad famously wrote, referring to the breathless speed of technological advancement in the crossover from nineteenth to twentieth century. In addressing the same historical period, Ildikó Enyedi’s debut film My Twentieth Century – released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Second Run – sees that flicker everywhere. It begins with a blinking, stuttering silent film clip, then moves onto the invention that made film projection possible – the lightbulb. Other flickers include the sparking fuses of anarchist bombs, the twinkling of distant stars and the strobing of trees past the window of the Orient Express, not to mention Enyedi’s imagination, a luminous firework display in its own right.
To say that My Twentieth Century covers a lot of ground would be both literally and figuratively true. Before it’s hit the twenty minute mark we’ve been to New Jersey, Budapest, Hamburg, the Burmese jungle, the Orient Express and outer space. After a brief prologue involving Thomas Edison, the narrative proper kicks off with Dorota Segda as an impoverished Hungarian woman who dies before her twins grow up. Enyedi marks the twins out with playful captions – “DÓRA’ and “LILI” – then cuts twenty years into the future, where the adult twins are also played by Segda.
Segda’s performance is one of the most casual, apparently effortless multiple roles in cinema history. The twins are differentiated not through tics or make-up but through their radically different approaches to the problem of living as a woman in pre-World War I Europe. Lili involves herself in revolutionary politics – in what must be a cinematic first, she woos a man using the work of the anarcho-Communist philosopher Peter Kropotkin – but is subject to secret self-doubt. Dóra, by contrast, appears more conventional and submissive, but it becomes obvious quickly that she has learned how to bend the rules of patriarchal society to her advantage.
The film is unquestionably a feminist work. In one scene, Lili attends a talk by the real-life anti-Semitic, misogynistic philosopher Otto Weininger, who Enyedi viciously lampoons. In a scene which still feels like a spot-on observation of modern online anti-feminism, Weininger repeatedly shrieks that women are “a-rational”, sounding far more shrill and hysterical than any of his opponents. This scene is complicated, though, by the mystic bent of the film itself. Enyedi has said in interviews that she feels science has demystified the world, and made it clear that she thinks this is a shame. While My Twentieth Century has a certain dreamlike irrationality, though, it would be a mistake to read it as anti-rationalism.
What Enyedi really seems to be taking aim at is not so much rationality as banality, the way that we absorb technological advancements into our lives without taking the time to appreciate how phenomenally odd they can be. My Twentieth Century attempts to rectify this by turning scientific and political history into a breathless fairy tale. The Edison prologue begins by making the most commonplace invention of his – the lightbulb – into an object of awe and mystery, then hops straight into the magic realist zone when animated stars (similar to those in It’s a Wonderful Life) begin talking to Edison. Those stars reappear to dazzle a dog with knowledge of the wider universe, prompting it to run away into the wilderness. Because this is an Eastern European absurdist comedy rather than a live-action Disney film, though, it gets there by stopping a train, then calmly getting on board.
As though tackling gender, science, politics and history wasn’t enough, Enyedi’s digressions frequently take her into the animal world. Like the cosmic interludes, these scenes frame and counterpoint the political struggle of the main story by pointing out how little these disputes mean to other inhabitants of the universe. For example, rather than launch a polemic against colonialism, Enyedi interrupts the narrative with a bizarre, hilarious skit about a family of chimpanzees meeting a white man and trying to work out what this strange hairless creature is doing.
It’s incredible that people will argue for blockbusters being “post-human” on the grounds that more has been invested in their monsters than their people, but ignore the achievements of this extraordinary, convulsive comedy of ideas. Perhaps its raging id, its untrammelled ambition, its daring to even step on Orson Welles’s turf with its Lady From Shanghai-style hall of mirrors ending, has simply scared people away. No doubt My Twentieth Century is a lot to take on, but it repays the effort by giving the viewer more to think about than any ten other randomly selected films can accommodate. It is comparable to the historical, postmodern literary picaresques of E.L. Doctorow or Thomas Pynchon, but it is utterly, passionately cinematic. With the new restoration doing full justice to its silvery black-and-white images, it emerges as a full-on thermonuclear blast of intellectual, comic and sensory pleasure.