Dualities and parallels abound in Ildikó Enyedi’s remarkable Az én XX. századom (My Twentieth Century, 1989), a singularly playful, magical realist, retro-futuristic, richly allusive, erotically charged, and witty film concerned with the utopian promise modernity and its technological marvels held at the outset of the 20th century – not least, the cinematic apparatus. This compromised utopia is interrogated from the ironised viewpoint of a visionary female Hungarian filmmaker working towards that fateful century’s end and situated, moreover, on the cusp of the end of another epoch, when the fall of communism across Europe’s Eastern Bloc was imminent.

My Twentieth Century opens with a credit sequence immediately telegraphing the film’s besottedness with early and silent-era cinema. A luminous black-and-white moon descends, centre-frame, bounces up and down and settles beneath the title before dissolving into a circular vignette bearing looped footage of a man with his head in a cannon, attempting to light its fuse. That man is Charley Bowers, and the footage is from 1926’s astonishing Now You Tell One (Bowers and Harold L. Muller), which aptly concerns the spinning of fantastical yarns. It also features improbable animal manifestations aplenty, an emerging Enyedi hallmark.

The action begins with the appearance of incandescent lightbulbs festooning trees like so many haloed glowworms in an enchanted wood, as a glum Thomas Edison (Péter Andorai, eponymous star of Enyedi’s later Simon mágus [Simon, the Magician, 1999]) launches his latest invention – in 1880 in New Jersey’s Menlo Park – with great fanfare. This includes a marching band whose every member sports a lit lightbulb upon their heads. A pair of chatty stars in the night sky attempt, and fail, to divert Edison’s attention, but do manage to redirect the camera’s gaze to Budapest, where Edison’s great scientific advancement is twinned with a simultaneous, more commonplace miracle – that of birth. And it’s twins! – Lili and Dóra, who are born somehow to their impoverished mother (Dorota Segda, in her film debut) as pre-swaddled ready-mades.

The next sequence finds Lili and Dóra as orphan girls trying to sell matches on Christmas Eve in a Budapest snowstorm. It is steeped in allusions to Jean Renoir’s La petite marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl, 1928) and D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). The latter film starred Lillian and Dorothy Gish; hence the twins’ names. They are soon separated, each seized in their sleep, simultaneously, by a top-hatted gentleman heading in alternate directions. One is fated, in due course, to become a vampish hedonist, enjoying the highlife and stringing along gentleman suitors (Dóra, also played by Segda) while the other, Lili (Segda again), emerges as a virginal, idealistic, bomb-throwing anarchist suffragette. Combined, as Catherine Portuges has noted, “the twins incarnate the split schisms of modernity, the competing claims on every woman confronted by the dual demands of female sexuality and equality in the world”.1

The next character the film irises in on is Z (Oleg Yankovsky, who played the lead in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia [1983]), who we see attending a demonstration at the Sorbonne of Nikola Tesla’s experiments with electricity. It’s attended, exclusively, by similarly well-heeled men – for science is a wholly masculine domain, don’t you know? He might be a worldly man of science, but Z will fall for both Lili and Dóra without realising, and despite clear differences in apparel and disposition, they’re two different women. In short order we’re transported with Z to Burma and then to Hamburg, where the company he keeps on board a boat is sceptical that Z’s Hungary is a real place, bordered, as Z claims it to be, by “Austria, Bohemia, Romania, and Serbia” – lands surely “invented by Shakespeare”.

We then head with Z to a captivating “Edison Light Show” in New York, before winding up on New Year’s Eve, 1900, on board the Orient Express, The new year is seen in by passengers including Dóra (luxuriating in 1st class) and Lili (among the great unwashed in 3rd) – each oblivious to the other’s presence – while the train is stopped and it straddles what would become a marker of a later east-west divide at Királyhida, the Hungarian town immediately neighbouring Bruck an der Leitha in Austria.

From this point on, the film flits in an out of a slew of episodes following the exploits of Dóra or Lili. These are often enlivened by their internal monologues and are punctuated by digressions. One such detour features a laboratory dog being force-fed a montage of found footage, culminating in a scene of feline mass exodus from a house, taken from Now You Tell One. Goaded by the stars, the dog likewise escapes to have itself a grand adventure across land and sea. In another diversion, a caged chimpanzee hijacks the film’s narrative awhile to regale us with a story of his sad capture at the hands of a hunter. That comes immediately after an extraordinary sequence in which Z attends a fanciful nickelodeon. In this scene the moving-picture shows are rendered as if in a multi-screen gallery installation, with several screens on a wall showing different silent movies, all rear-projected – some immediately recognisable as the work of Georges Méliès.

Soon after, Lili attends a comical and thematically significant lecture given by the famously misogynous Austrian philosopher, Otto Weininger (Paulus Manker), to the Union of Hungarian Feminists. Weininger outlines the fundamental polarity he believes all women adhere to, being either virgin (à la Lili) or whore (à la Dóra). His presentation assumes ever more hysterical, even Pythonesque, dimensions, until the total absence of logic he insists to be intrinsic to women of either putative persuasion entirely overtakes him, and the room empties.

Pursuant to all manner of further escapades and doppelgänger derring-do, Dóra, Lili, and Z will, of course, ultimately meet – and where else but in a hall of mirrors, evoking a sequence in Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) (as well as Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai [1947]). But if the romantic intrigue should end there – without being resolved in any conventional manner – the film still has another metanarrative manoeuvre or two up its sleeve, moving on to a demonstration of another Edison invention, the telegraph. However, its launch is undercut by a window sill visitation from a white carrier pigeon, an analogous messenger service employed by anarchists throughout the film.

What cost, the magical gains of modernity, to the appreciation of the magic of the natural order – and to whom, the spoils? To all, or to the west, rather more than the east, and to men, more than to women? And with how many world wars, atrocities and arbitrary divisions necessary before things get better – if, indeed, they ever will?


The aforementioned Hamburg is notably where funding for My Twentieth Century first emerged. Hamburger Filmburo’s brief was to support German filmmakers; Enyedi, a vanishingly rare female filmmaker from still-socialist Hungary, who had been denied a diploma from the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest and even had her graduation film, Invázió (Invasion, 1986), banned, certainly did not fit the bill.2 Yet the Hamburger Filmburo were excited by her script, and their support led Budapest Filmstúdió to assist with the film, too.

As Enyedi acknowledged, My Twentieth Century was “the most free film I could do, ever. There was really, really no control at all. Really, really not any sort of political, economical, any sort, of constraint.”3 And so, with only a clutch of shorts and one short feature, Vakond (The Mole, 1987),4 behind her, Enyedi was given the means to shoot for a luxurious 72 days. She was able to secure the services of a wonderfully talented director of photography, Tibor Máthé, whom she considered a great asset, as she believed he had no telltale style and “an amazing talent for dramaturgy”.5 Certainly, his chiaroscuro cinematography is startlingly beautiful throughout, while remaining unfailingly evocative of a long-bygone filmmaking age. He would work with Enyedi again on 1994’s delightful fable Bűvös vadász (Magic Hunter) and Simon, the Magician. László Vidovszky’s retro-futuristic score is pitch-perfect, too, impeccably consonant with the wonderment and charm embedded in the imagery and eccentric storytelling.

With Hungary’s communist regime crumbling, Enyedi was left alone to complete the film without any interference during production or postproduction. Thus, after premiering in Toronto, My Twentieth Century duly won the Camera d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, even though it was her second, rather than her first, feature film.

Az én XX. Századom/My Twentieth Century (1989 Hungary/West Germany/Cuba 104 mins) 

Prod Co: Budapest Filmstúdió/Friedländer Filmproduktion GmbH/Magyar Filmgyártó Vallalat/Hamburger Filmbüro Prod: Gábor Hanák, Norbert Friedländer Dir: Ildikó Enyedi Scr: Ildikó Enyedi Phot: Tibor Máthé Ed: Mária Rigó Prod Des: Zoltán Lábas Mus: László Vidovszky

Cast: Dorota Segda, Oleg Yankovsky, Paulus Manker, Péter Andorai, Gábor Máté


  1. Catherine Portuges, “Central European Twins: Psychoanalysis and Cinema in Ildikó Enyedi’s My Twentieth Century”, Psychoanalytic Inquiry: A Topical Journal for Mental Health Professionals, 27.4, 2007, 525-39.
  2. Where she would later become an esteemed member of faculty.
  3. Enyedi, interviewed by Peter Strickland in 2016. This interview is included as an extra on Second Run’s Blu-ray release of My Twentieth Century.
  4. This is a little-circulated adaptation of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ novel, The Invention of Morel (1940), made for Balázs Béla Studio, Eastern Europe’s sole independent film studio prior to 1989.
  5. Enyedi, interviewed by Strickland.

About The Author

Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Cerise Howard has been Program Director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival since May 2023. A co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque for several years now, she previously co-founded the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia and was its Artistic Director from 2013-2018; she was also a co-founding member of tilde: Melbourne Trans and Gender Diverse Film Festival. For five years she has been a Studio Leader at RMIT University, specialising in studios interrogating the shortcomings of the canon and incubating film festivals. She plays a mean bass guitar.

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