In a world of blockbusters and multiplexes, the Bem is a filmic anomaly, a 1908 landmark dedicated to cult and classic movies. Closed a century later, it was revived in 2016 by Gergő Szomszéd as Hungary’s only repertory cinema, inspired by illustrious examples he had visited in London and Melbourne. English dialogue and subtitles feature throughout the monthly programme faithfully cherry picked by Gergő himself.

So revered its regulars clubbed together during the pandemic closures to save it from going out of business, the Bem is almost as old as cinema itself. Opened as the Helios in 1908, it screened films for just over a century before it went the way of so many independent picture houses as malls and multiplexes sprang up around Budapest.

It was also about this time that film buff Gergő Szomszéd discovered the wonders of repertory cinema abroad. “I spent three months in Melbourne and made several visits to London,” says the man behind the Bem revival.

Retro treasure

I loved places like the Astor and the Prince Charles. I couldn’t believe that they could survive, even be really popular, just by showing old films day after day.”

Returning home to Budapest, Gergő started looking for a place where he could try out the same concept. “I asked around and people suggested the Bem. It was closed in 2009 but had been renovated a decade or so earlier, so we didn’t need to do much to it.”

The theatre stands on the Buda side of Margaret Bridge, then one of the tattier sections of the tram-lined Nagykörút. While the Pest end buzzed as new-wave cafés and galleries opened around Újlipótváros, this was the land that time forgot, all closed bars and dusty shopfronts.

A local overview of Budapest cinemas back then says, “Unworthy of its heritage, the Bem has died at the age of 102, with an almost 0% chance of being revived. Budapest Film has sold the part of the property that will presumably continue its life as a bank or some other business”.

And yet the Bem was not only revived but slowly thrived.

At first it was very hit and miss,” says Gergő. “We screened a few classics, spread the word on Facebook. Some worked, some didn’t. Slowly we found our audience.”

The bar helped. Overlooking the constant yellow blur of the 4/6 tram, an easy hop from anywhere in Pest and key points in Buda and Óbuda, the cosy drinkery attached to the cinema also attracted non-filmgoers precisely because there was little else in the vicinity.

Today it serves Czech Primátor on draught, decent, affordable wine and gluten-free brownies. Those heading into the 100-seater hall can take bottles in with them.

But old film posters – such as Trainspotting, Clockwork Orange and the wonderful Ruben Brandt here – do not a cinema bar make. The Bem’s has that priceless commodity: it feels lived-in, loved, a home from home for its many regulars. An old radio built into the bar counter sets the tone. A small stage in the corner allows for unplugged performances.

As for the films, now 70-80% of the programme is in English, and all are English-friendly. “It’s reasonably easy to source the classics from the main studios,” says Gergő. “But the problem is sometimes getting hold of quality copies.”

Along with screening Hollywood gems from the 1950s and later, the Bem broke new ground by showing cult Hungarian films with English subtitles. “We have the National Film Institute to thank for creating them,” says Gergő.

Magyar narancs

Now when we show something like A tanú, the place is packed and hardly anyone is Hungarian.” 

Along with this revered dig at Communism from 1969, edgy, underground works such as Moszkva tér and Roncsfilm have recently been listed on the monthly changing poster decorating the façade of the vintage building.

This month sees Godard’s À bout de souffle and Cannes winner La Haine being screened in original French with English subtitles – bypassing Hungarian entirely. While Gergő admits that arranging the rights to project French or Italian films is trickier than for UK or American ones, his diligence means that each monthly programme is a cornucopia of celluloid, even when so much is available at the click of a keyboard at home.

Bread and circuses

People still love the experience of going to the cinema,” he says. “It’s a social thing, they can come with friends, with family. We keep admission prices at 1,400 forints across the board, whatever the film.

With 30,000-40,000 through the door on an annual basis, the Bem is also integral to a wider resurgence, of this long-overlooked hood along and off Margit körút. The rapidly developing Margit Quarter should see a number of cultural and communal outlets opening here, encouraged by favourable discounts on rent.

Meanwhile, Gergő will continue to plan out each day’s serving of screen gems two months ahead of time, though his own particular favourite is rarely shown. “It’s Jurassic Park,” he confesses. “I saw it as a boy and it was just magic. I still cry when I watch it today.”

Venue information

Bem cinema
1027 Budapest, Margit körút 5 
Open: Mon-Fri 3pm-1am, Sat 4pm-1am