Bem Mozi: An Outpost of Filmic Heaven in Buda

In Budapest

Bem Mozi boasts its own bar, a major distraction to seeing the films.

The satisfyingly scruffy Bem Cinema on the Buda side, just over the curving Margit híd, is the kind of movie house cinephiles like me dream of.

Apart from the fact that it shows English language movies as well as Hungarian classics (or, as it says on its Facebook page: “the best (or sometimes the worst) pop-cult cinema of the last decades of film history”) with English subtitles, the Bem is free from the stultifying rules that make going to the movies in Hungary all too often a drag.

If you’ve ever been to one of this country’s multiplexes or even its often excellent arthouse cinemas, you’ll know that you can only sit in the seat you buy a ticket for. I’ve tried bucking the system by flopping down wherever I want. Every time, I’ve been forced to move by a Hungarian brandishing their correct ticket and hissing at me.

Fair enough, but such regimentation takes away part of the fun of going to the movies. Stepping out of the world of rules and into a space of dreams, of freedom from the humdrum.

Hungarian cinemas, along with most in the Western world, also make getting in and out once the movie’s started a pretty unnerving experience.

Not being able to buy alcohol if you feel the urge. Stepping over legs that stiffen with irritation as their owner peers around you while they shovel popcorn into a gaping mouth. Standing in something sticky that smells of radioactive cheese. Navigating a set of stairs that descend at a terrifyingly steep angle in near pitch darkness. Following a never-ending corridor to find the restroom and having to ask an usher how to get back in. Such are the joys of the multiplex.

At the Bem, you sit where you like, bring booze in with you if you fancy, go in and out of the screening theater right next to the bar (yes, you read that right) as often as you like, feel you’re in a gang of like minds rather than in hostile territory.

Bem’s one theater, where you sit where you choose.

Dangerous Distraction

Be warned, though, the Bem’s bar, with its hip without being painfully smug vibe, is a dangerous distraction from actually making it into the cinema. This would be a mighty shame as the Bem is a living, breathing part of Hungarian cinema history.

Known in the beginning as the Helios Mozi, the cinema first flung open its doors in 1908. It was a time when cinemas were opening all over the country. There were, apparently, 270 in operation in Hungary by 1910. While the starched collars turned up their noses and looked down their pince-nez at the movies, the ancestors of the movie buffs that now haunt the Bem were becoming hip to cinema’s possibilities for revolutionizing art.

The Helios changed its name to the Admiral in 1934. When cinemas in this country were given Hungarian names in 1939, it was renamed the Adria Film Theater. It became the Bem in the socialist 1950s.

During 1979, the Bem began evolving into the physical space it is today. Apart from fitting a new space to house the projector, the shape of the auditorium changed to accommodate 150 people. It now seats 101. The floor and side walls were carpeted, and sheets of metal were fitted to the ceiling to improve sound quality.

The Bem’s fortunes were unaffected by the collapse of socialism. In 2000, it became a member of the Europa Cinemas network. This hugely worthwhile organization supports cinemas that screen a significant number of European films from outside their country and engage younger audiences.

But in 2009, it looked like the Bem was flickering towards its final frames. On May 14, 2010, this Hungarian cinematic institution closed for good. Or so it was thought at the time.

Cinephile Gergő Szomszéd had been inspired by repertory cinemas while traveling in Melbourne, Australia and London. Asking around, he was told about the Bem. He discovered that the cinema had been fitted with Dolby Stereo sound and new projectors before it closed. Szomszéd decided to make it Hungary’s first (and still only) rep cinema. He duly acquired the Bem and reopened it in January 2016.

Bem-lovers Community

At the start, the Bem showed a few classics and promoted itself on Facebook. Some showings were well-attended. Others weren’t. But slowly, a community of Bem-lovers grew. This was in part down to the movie programming, but the Bem bar was a huge attraction. At that time, it was one of the very few alternative drinkeries in that part of the Buda side. It still is. You may even be allowed to smoke in the bar, but don’t quote me on that.

Regulars love the place so much that they even clubbed together during the dark days of the COVID lockdown to help keep it from going under. Today, around 70-80% of Bem’s program is in English and all movies have English subtitles. This is particularly helpful for those of us who want to find out more about Hungarian cinema but don’t know where to start. For example, on Nov. 1, Bem screened “Kárhozat” (“Damnation”), directed by the mighty Béla Tarr.

As ever, the program for this month has been a mix of Hungarian movies with English subtitles and Hollywood fare. Today (Nov. 17), it is screening “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and the original “West Side Story” will be played on Sunday (Nov. 19).

In 2021, between 30,000 and 40,000 people visited the Bem. How many made it beyond the bar into the theater is a matter of speculation. But if they did, they were in for a cinematic treat.

The Bem is at Margit körút 5. It is hard to pin it down precisely, but I think the bar’s open from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Friday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday. For film times, find Bem Mozi on Facebook or stroll by the cinema itself.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of November 17, 2023.

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