AZ ÉN XX SZÁZADOM – MY 20TH CENTURY (1989)
Director: Ildikó Enyedi
Script: Ildikó Enyedi
Music: László Vidovszky
Cinematography: Tibor Máthé
Cast: Dorota Segda, Oleg Yankovskiy
Ildikó Enyedi’s debut film AZ ÉN XX SZÁZADOM was released during a shifting political and social landscape in Hungary. In 1989, Communism in Hungary was dissipating as a multi-party system developed, marking the first real tear in the Iron Curtain. This shift came after a period marked by heavy violence during the Kádár era that began after the Soviet occupation in 1956. A year after the release of AZ ÉN XX SZÁZADOM, Hungary would see its first free election but also an economic downturn similar to the global one experienced in the 80’s. This turbulent time allowed Enyedi to portray themes that previous directors would have been forbidden to explore. Moreover, the time period also allowed her to focus on gender equality, a theme that her male colleagues chose to ignore.
AZ ÉN XX SZÁZADOM begins in New Jersey in 1890, showing Thomas Edison exhibiting his experiments with electricity, but quickly shifts to the stars that narrate parts of the film. The stars turn their attention to Budapest to witness Anya giving birth to identical twins Dóra and Lili. The twins become orphans at a young age and are kidnapped by different captors on Christmas Eve. Although they live separate lives, they often come close to reuniting by chance. Dóra becomes bourgeois, dressing in evening gowns and using her sex appeal with men to rob them of their wealth and power, while Lili becomes a peasant embroiled in revolution and acts of terrorism.
Apart from the twins, the only other character in the film is a man named Z who seems interested in an intellectual lifestyle. He first encounters Lili in Budapest and becomes attracted to her, but Lili is more fixated on her agenda with revolution and their paths part ways. Z later encounters Dóra aboard a ship, unknowing that it is not the same sister he met before, and they have a short but quick affair aboard the boat before their paths also diverge. While Lili begins to question the revolution while trapped in Siberia, the Stars encourage her return to Budapest where again she encounters Z, who recalls Dóra’s more aggressive behavior aboard the ship but is unaware that Lili has an identical twin. This leads to a sexual misunderstanding between the two and as Z tries to pursue Lili, the film concludes with them trapped in a hall of mirrors with the twins finally reuniting and Z left deciding which woman he was actually attracted to.
Dorota Segda does a fantastic job portraying Anya, Dóra, and Lili even though a lot of criticism seems to be placed on the lack of depth of the characters Dóra and Lili. This is perhaps because the women represent two different ideologies of existing in Budapest during the Communist era, either manipulating the system to your advantage to survive or trying to revolt against the system. I think this leads the viewer to see the character Z as a representation of Hungary itself, torn between both systems. However, it is worth noting that Enyedi has rejected any sort of conventional narrative. The film plays out more like a patchwork of dream sequences, the most noticeable being the final scene, in which the characters encounter endless reflections and are unsure of reality. Enyedi is very clever in using the surface theme of a torn Hungary as a distraction to what she really wants to talk about – the psychology of men and women.
Enyedi approaches this idea through out the film, but it is most apparent in two scenes. In the first we view a dog that is tied to electrodes and is forced to watch stock footage of human progress with images of workers, rockets, and intellectuals. The dog is apathetic to these images and it isn’t until the dog sees cats that he becomes erratic and is instilled with the desire to be free, and we watch him as he runs through the city and fields and ends up at the vast ocean. Enyedi is ambiguous about the conclusion to be drawn here – what about the cats caused emotion to stir within the dog? Perhaps this question is answered in a later scene in which Lili is attending a lecture by Weininger Ottó. At first, Weininger misleads the women in the audience that he supports their desire for suffrage, heightened by Enyedi using shots that place the audience on the same level as Weininger. However, his discussion quickly breaks down into labeling women as either mothers or whores driven only by sexual desire.. Enyedi cleverly shifts the viewpoint of the camera, which is now looking down on Weininger.
Though AZ ÉN XX SZÁZADOM is well regarded in Hungary, the film still seems trapped, appreciated more for its visual and unusual narrative style and less for its content. Stateside, it was was reviewed as a series of “half-formed ideas … flitting around begin to grate on your nerves”. Perhaps Enyedi made a film that is too complicated in a single viewing or lost on an audience that doesn’t possess a wealth of outside knowledge. The characters themselves could reference Dorothy and Lillian Gish, D. W. Griffiths preferred actresses. This is further supported through the opening credits and a scene in an early cinema, harkening back to silent era films. The scene with Weininger Ottó doesn’t lend the viewer the knowledge that Ottó was a real Austrian philosopher who preached similar ideas as his character in the film.
Ildikó Enyedi is still directing films today with her most recent being a short film ELSÖ SZERELEM, released in 2008. AZ ÉN XX SZÁZADOM is available in an English friendly edition put out by MaNDA that includes the short ELSÖ SZERELEM.