Ildiko Enyedi, My Twentieth Century (Hungary, 1989).
My Twentieth Century mixes naturalism with anti-naturalism as much as it mixes historical fact with fantasy. The film is about the transition into the twentieth century and it skips around as much temporally as it does geographically.
The film presents the spectator with the world at the turn of the century and represents the promise that the new century held at the time, especially in the West. The spectator is given sequences, throughout the film, showing several of the greatest and most promising technological advances of the time. Electricity, in the figure of Edison and in the image of light, the telegraph, the phonograph and film are in My Twentieth Century depicted and heralded as the approach of a great new age. Each of these new inventions, and especially collectively, made the world excited with dreams of the possibilities for development and advance of humanity that the Twentieth century seemed to propose. The reality of the world, though, is that the Twentieth century did not as it turned out fulfill any of the great promises and dreams that seemed so possible at its onset. Instead horror, especially in the shape of war, would mark and scar the world, by far, much more than any technology would create progress or happiness.
The film is shot beautifully in black and white through which, in part, it makes many allusions throughout to the silent era of filmmaking. The silent era was the first major era for the film industry and in it many people saw this new art form as an art of the people. As much excitement and promise that the technology presented, so too did the advent of the new art form of film. However, the promise and excitement of film as an art for the people, that could unite and restore justice to the masses, was like the promise of the new technology, never to be realized. Instead it turned out for many to do a bitter opposite. Fascist regimes employed and manipulated film to serve their own cruel ends. Fascist Italy as well as Nazi Germany caught on quick that film could be used powerfully as propaganda. Film lent itself to the manipulative lies of these terrible regimes more appropriately and forcefully than arguably any previous method ever had. Far from fulfilling its promise of something wonderful, for many intellectuals of the time film became the bitter and malicious opposite of all the great that it could have been. People like Walter Benjamin were made terribly disillusioned and never looked back on the art medium of film the same way at all. My Twentieth Century in alluding to the silent era makes the connection deliberately clear – the early days of film came to represent promises unfulfilled much as did technology at large. All the wonderful advancements became tools of the murderous war machine that ravaged much of the world during the first half of the twentieth century.
The narrative, in terms of characters, is elusive. The first and final scenes mirror one another. They are each of a woman giving birth to twins, seemingly miraculously. She lies in bed holding one baby, and seemingly surprised pulls another out from under her skirt. The scene has the feel of something miraculous. Much of the rest of the film, though, seems intent on turning its back on scenes of joy such as this one. Nonetheless, the appearance is always one of beauty. Scenes depicting light shows to exhibit the new invention are depicted in a very high contrast. The large bulbs burn brightly and magnificently in the dark of night. The narrative follows the lives of the twins which turn out to be totally opposed to one another. The twins are separated by two strange men at a very early age. One grows up to be poor, timid and a political revolutionary. The other becomes wealthy and very eroticized. Dualities such as this central one run throughout the film. One girl represents innocence and humility and strives for women’s equality while the other represents exploited, sexualized allure, practically hustling wealthy men for their money. These opposed dualities work well with the high contrast black and white of many scenes, the contrast between naturalism and anti-naturalism and the desperate opposition between the promise that the Twentieth century presented at its birth and the reality of what it would become. Also appropriately, the film ends just before the horror begins.