Twins in Literature and Film
Dr. Dominik Orth / German Studies
Photo: Sebastian Jarych

The Discrepancy Between External Similarity and Inner Difference

Literature and media scholar Dr. Dominik Orth on twins in literature and film

What do Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, Crown Princess Mary and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have in common? They are all parents of twins. For about a hundred years, twin research has been one of the most exciting fields of science, and as recently as 1909 it was described in Meyer's Konversationslexikon as follows: "Twins: two fruits ripening at the same time in the same mother. Whether they are conceived by one and the same sexual act or in two short successive ones has not yet been determined and will probably remain a mystery." Abused by Third Reich research, serious twin cohorts were established worldwide after World War II, now numbering about 1.5 million twins and producing over 2748 twin studies between 1950 and 2012. Every year, this number increases by another 500 to 1000. We already encounter them in mythology and literature has also dealt with them time and again. In the 20th century, twins have additionally often been an exciting addition to the silver screen. Dr. Dominik Orth, literature and media scientist in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Bergische Universität, has examined the myth of twins with students in a seminar and has come up with some surprising results.

A Sturm und Drang drama was the trigger "The idea came from a very famous text entitled 'The Twins' from 1776 by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger," Orth explains, "a very famous drama from the Sturm und Drang period. He dealt with the twins in a variation on the theme of brotherly conflict." Although authors such as Schiller also took on this theme, he says, it was Klinger who actually focused on twin brothers. "I then looked to see where else this twin motif plays a role," he continues, arriving at a variety of current texts via Kästner's Doppeltes Lottchen. "I was very surprised at how unbelievably often the twin motif plays a role, even in more sophisticated texts from contemporary literature." Orth finds novels and short stories in many independent publishers and is preparing a study seminar. The twin mot if One can speak of a twin motif when the siblings play a leading role and are significant for the text, explains the humanities scholar. The question always arises as to whether it is important that the protagonists are merely siblings or twins. The latter is particularly important in the case of the Klinger drama mentioned at the beginning, because the conflict in the drama arises from the right of primogeniture, which was of great, existential importance in the 18th century, especially in inheritance law. "In Klinger's case, the supposedly younger brother was not sure whether he might not be the firstborn after all. To make matters worse, everyone he asked was ambiguous. That simply added another nuance to the motif of brother conflict." We already encounter the twin motif in mythology. Zeus and Leda's night of love famously gives rise to the twins Castor and Pollux. "Almost everything that appears in encyclopedias on themes, motifs and material history quite often has its origin in Greek or Roman mythology," Orth knows, "one always thinks of Romulus and Remus. When it comes to Castor and Pollux, I immediately thought of the 1997 film "Face/Off" (In the Body of the Enemy) with Nicolas Cage," the media scientist smiles and explains, "because the brothers are also called Castor and Pollux. That is, even Hollywood productions refer to such mythological figures." This also shows that the theme has not only been continued in literature or painting, but also in other media. External similarity - internal difference

Twins often look very similar, but in literature it is mainly the contrasts that are emphasized, Orth was able to determine with the students. "In most of the twin texts, the similarities were external; internally, character-wise, they were always very different." That's usually one of the main themes in the texts as well, he said, this discrepancy between the outward similarity and the inner difference. "It's this conflict that says, I don't want to be like my sister or brother, but I look like them." Orth proves that this even goes so far that in the novel "Braiding" by the Swiss author Barbara Schibli, where there were twin sisters, one of them inflicted a scar on the other when she was young so that she would look different from her. Later, when she became a photographer, she exhibited only pictures of her sister, always retouching the scar so that people didn't know whether it was the photographer herself or her sister. "So even when difference markers are physically inflicted, they're still taken away to say even though we're trying to be different, we're not." In terms of character, however, twins are often different, he was able to prove with the students in many texts, and it was also exciting to see that opposites, after all, are known to attract, especially when it comes to different genders. "Therefore, there are also texts that go so far that there is also a reunion of a sexual nature. That was an interesting experience that no one had thought of at the beginning, when we asked ourselves what to expect with this topic. Nobody expected incest, but that's also addressed in texts."

A literary sleight of hand ...

In the 'Comedy of Errors`, written in 1590, William Shakespeare also takes up the twin motif and doubles it once again by placing a twin servant at the side of each of the separated twin brothers. The twin motif becomes a literary device. "Especially for mistaken identities, this is of course a wonderful motif to work with twins," Orth knows and adds to the aforementioned example another comedy by the successful author that premiered in 1602. "In `What You Will`, the twins Viola and Sebastian are separated. Viola believes that her brother has died and then goes her way alone. She disguises herself as a man, as Cesario, and there is some confusion in the play. Sebastian has survived, however, and later shows up and is mistaken for Cesario, his sister, because of the resemblance, which again leads to confusion. Again, it's a literary device."

... which continues in the 20th century.

Among the most famous twin adaptations of the 20th century is Erich Kästner`s 'Das doppelte Lottchen`. The novel was published in 1949, and the timely film adaptation rewarded the material with the first Federal Film Award in 1950. Orth sees the special thing about it in the "idea of leading a different life unknown. This is basically a further development of the confusion motif. The confusions are usually unintentional, especially in the Shakespeare example mentioned above. But here it is intentional. The two girls recognize each other in Kästner's work when they meet by chance, and they deliberately interchange their identities. The idea of being able to live a different life and not be recognized is particularly well done here."

Findings of twin research find their way into cinematography

Twin research in Germany had taken horrific forms during the Nazi era, and establishing serious research was understandably difficult after World War II. There are two German twin groups in Germany today. These are the biomedical cohort HealthTwiSt with about 1500 twin pairs and `TwinLife`, a sociological-psychological cohort with about 4000 twin pairs as well as disease-specific cohorts. Scientists from Saarland University and Bielefeld University want to shed light on the interaction of inheritance and environment from different perspectives. Their aforementioned study 'TwinLife` is planned for twelve years and is supported by the German Research Foundation. The aim is to find out which factors contribute to a person's school performance, career and social status and to what extent. Four thousand pairs of identical and fraternal twins and their families from all over Germany are taking part in the study. Orth believes this could in turn provide new fictional material in the future, as there has often been overlap with twin research in the history of twin literature. "I invited a guest from the TU Dresden, Wieland Schwanebeck, who has studied this extensively," he says. "He wrote his habilitation on the twin motif and found out that there is a close link between twin research in the 19th century and the appearance of twins in crime novels from that time. That's really exciting. That's where you can find that independent of literature, there's research into how it can be, for example, that one twin becomes a criminal and the other doesn't." This has had an influence on many crime novels, which have then worked with the twin theme. In suspense literature, there are always twins as a theme, he said. "On television, too, there is now a multi-part documentary series called `Evil Twins`," and that, too, proves the recurring interest in this motif.

Twins as "Black Lives Matter" Required Reading?

A recent twin novel about two sisters from a black family has been making news since 2020. In it, one of the twin sisters chooses to live as a white person. In her novel `The Vanishing Half` (The Vanishing Half), Brit Bennett plays out the idea. Is that where the twin motif becomes the current `Black Lives Matter` required reading? "Yes, I think so. It's not a German-language text, so we didn't read it in our German studies seminar, but it's a very topical and exciting subject. The interesting thing is that basically the twins don't play such a big role. The twin motif does have an important function, but it is less about the twin siblings than about their children. The skin color of the twins, which is why one can decide to live as a white person at all, is such that you can't exactly tell if they are 'black' or 'white.' And one decides to live as a white woman and her child is also white, while the other stays at home and, as the novel describes it, finds the "blackest man" and has a child by him, who is - this is emphasized again and again - very dark-skinned. It's then about what happens to the children, because one of them doesn't even know that she's actually 'black' because she grew up 'white.'" As the story progresses, the two cousins then come together, with the daughter who grew up black, who despite all the discrimination ends up going to medical school, telling her `white` cousin that she is actually `black'. There are identity issues at stake, she says, and the real absurdity of questions about skin color are thus portrayed. "Again, the sisters are very similar in appearance, very different in character, and live their lives on different levels." The apparent twin problems are used in literary terms and virtually carried over into the next generation.

The unique bond in the heroic epic

Luke and Leia (Star Wars), Cersei and Jamie (Game of Thrones), and Fred and George Weasley (Harry Potter) are prominent pairs of twins in fantastic literature and form a very special unit. "They're more connected than other people," Orth says. "I think it's a bond that you can't imagine as an individual. You can't learn that, you can't replicate that. You either have that bond or you don't. That can be a curse and a blessing at the same time. Almost all of the texts we covered in the seminar made this bond a theme. That's another origin of the fascination with twins, because you can't relate to it." But the separation of a twin can also mean reunion. Jack from James Cameron's hit film `Avatar` reacts resignedly to the death of his twin brother. With this loss, the ties that still bind Jack to Earth are finally cut, and he can make a new start. The fact that he takes over the avatar originally developed for his brother on Pandora for this purpose can also be read as a reunion of the two. "That's a particular way that the film constructs that, that it's actually for the brother and then he slips into it himself. So art can extend such a union beyond death. Another kind of union is the motif of incest, where it's then played out in a very different way. There's a story by Thomas Mann, Wälsungenblut, where that plays a role."

The texts had sensitized him, Orth sums up, and the bottom line for him was the individuality of the single twin, who doesn't always want to be compared with his counterpart, as in most texts. And then, finally, the topic has a private connection, the scientist reveals at the end: Orth recently became a father; of twins, to be precise.

Uwe Blass (conversation from 03/31/2022)

Dominik Orth completed a master's degree with the subjects of cultural studies, German studies and history at the universities of Bonn and Bremen. He received his PhD from the University of Bremen in 2012. Since 2017, he has been working as a lecturer for special tasks in the field of Modern German Literature in the Department of German Studies at Bergische Universität.



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