Why There Are So Many Doppelgängers In Movies

Why There Are So Many Doppelgängers In Movies

By Jonathan Kiefer

Jesse Eisenberg in "The Double".
SourceDean Rodgers/Magnolia Pictures


Because we might be a culture obsessed with our own evil twins. And there’s probably something Freud could have told us about that.

By Jonathan Kiefer

What made it weird is that there were two of them. Two months ago, within two weeks of each other, two movies about there being two versions of the same man. First was The Face of Love, with Ed Harris playing both a dead husband and his living lookalike, messing with the mind of a widow played by Annette Bening. Then came Enemy, with Jake Gyllenhaal as a teacher who rents a movie and discovers that one of its actors exactly resembles him.

The doppelgänger: It’s a motif whose obviously compelling visual possibilities have been exploited by movies more than a couple of times. And it goes way back — at least since the French silent film comedian Max Linder’s “human mirror” gag in Seven Years Bad Luck, from 1921. But really, doppelgängers and other evil-twin derivatives have lurked among our stories and culture since long before there were even movies at all.

It’s always sort of creepy to think that your double is out there, possibly having a better life than yours. 

That’s why The Double, a new film in theaters now, with Jesse Eisenberg as both a pushover office drone and, oppositely, an extroverted employee of the month, feels so eerily familiar. It not just that you’ve seen this in other films; it’s that you’ve also read it, particularly in the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella from which this film derives. (Enemy, too, had a literary source: the 2004 José Saramago novel whose English title also was The Double, although it translated more literally as The Duplicated Man.)

Whether construed as sensitive grief ritual, moody psycho-thriller or wry satire, the newest motion-picture doppelgänger stories have something old but no less true to tell us about how little difference there is, for any of us, between identity and performance. And it’s befitting for our time — think online avatars or alter egos, and the million ways we play different versions of ourselves today. It’s always sort of creepy to think that your double is out there, possibly having a better life than yours. Creepier to think you might have created such a monster yourself. 

The doppelgänger’s recent prevalence in visual media may just be a coincidence, but three in as many months is hard not to notice. But since we’re talking about doubles, we need a round, even number of films: While waiting skittishly to see what June might bring, one might for symmetry’s sake rent Rainer Fassbinder’s 1978 movie of Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair, with Dirk Bogarde and a doppelgänger who only seems as such to him. And maybe even watch it twice.