Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
I’ve always liked old horror movies, but I never really was a silent film enthusiast. I just found them too artsy and strange to really enjoy. It’s like watching a talkies era movie where everybody has been replaced by mimes and with awful camera quality. Though you have to respect movies like Nosferatu and The Golem for still being so iconic and getting Blu-ray releases, and thanks to internet forums I do have some knowledge on the matter.
Anyway, have you ever heard stories of those obscure Eastern-European museums that supposedly house all kinds of long lost prints? I did. And I thought it was unlikely too.
I was on vacation in Budapest to visit some distant relatives, which I hadn’t seen in years. My family has lived in the US since the 1910’s, so I had never even been in Hungary before, though my third cousin and his wife had come over to the US a couple of times. It was my first night in Budapest, and I was staying in a low-budget hotel just outside the inner city. When I woke up, the first thing I saw was the snow that gently covered everything outside. After getting up, I decided that I’d check out some famous landmarks first, since my appointment with my third cousin wasn’t until tomorrow
After seeing some famous landmarks and watching western-influenced buildings and Soviet concrete slabs make way for each other many times, I decided it was time go back to my hotel room. I was already nearing the area when I stumbled upon an advertisement.
It was a faded poster that drew my attention because of the strange black-and-white images on it, depicting a sad, mime-like face surrounded by what must have been stills from old movies. Above it there was some Cyrillic writing I couldn’t understand. Not very inviting. I was about to move on when I saw that there was a small English translation below, which said:
“Budapest Institute for Silent Film: Miracles of Modern Age!”
I chuckled. Didn’t seem very impressive. So I went on to my apartment and texted a bit with my colleagues, until I dropped myself on the bed, bored shitless. I studied the patterns on my bed sheets as I thought of everything I had seen today. But eventually even that didn’t save me from boredom, until the image of the old poster popped up in my head again. What was that thing for anyway?
Probably just some old movies, what else could it be? Books? Racing cars? The poster was obvious enough. Not that I’d would get to see any of that anyway, those prints had to be nearly dead. Or maybe I would, and it would be one of those crazy German flicks. I started to get curious. Maybe there would be some exclusives that were never put online.
“Screw it.” I thought. It couldn’t be worse than just sitting on my ass here the entire time, could it? So at about 3 o’clock I went back outside to where I saw the poster. The sad mime’s eyes greeted me from the distance and I could barely make out the address under all the stills. I will not display it here. I want nobody else to go through this, not even those who are morbidly curious to the point of stupidity.
After some research I finally found the location of the street on the map. The only thing I’ll say about it is that it was far out of Budapest itself. I took a bus ride through the snowy streets, beautiful fields and eventually the bus dropped me off at what looked like an old warehouse in quarter filled with old, featureless concrete buildings. This really didn’t seem like the place for an art museum. For a moment I considered just waiting for the next bus to pick me up again, but I was too curious now. I didn’t come all this way for nothing.
As I looked around a bit, I noticed that this part of the city seemed to quiet. I saw barely any people on the street, and when I did it was usually a homeless person quietly walking by, treating me as if I didn’t exist. The buildings looked faded, either out of use or just straight out abandoned.
A couple of empty streets later, I stood before what had to be the museum. With all the concrete architecture, it looked just like the other buildings. The windows were faded and scratched, there was graffiti on the walls and tiny cracks in the concrete walls, but it looked like it was still in use. Above the double doors there was a sign with Cyrillic text, probably with the title of the museum. After taking a deep breath, I opened one of the doors and stepped inside.
Inside, there was what looked like a receptionist’s lobby, but there was no one around. The walls were white, dirty and completely empty. Once again, I considered leaving now because this whole place was probably abandoned, but then I saw the lobby desk had a bell I could ring. I did, and the echo sent a chill down my spine. Who knew if this building was even inhabited? My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps grower louder. I turned around and saw a bearded man in an old business suit step into the room from the hallway.
He frowned at me with his coal black eyes with an emotion that was impossible to determine. After an awkward silence, he started talking rapidly in a Hungarian, wildly pointing his hands to the hallway and back at me. I tried to tell him that I couldn’t understand, but he was getting wilder by the second, shouting at me and forcing me near the door. Finally, I hastily grabbed some Forint bills from my pocket and showed it to him, and he seemed to calm down. After raising 5 fingers to determine how many bills he wanted, I was allowed to go inside.
I was led into a white hallway, which led to a room of silent film stills, one of which I recognized as Bela Lugosi, the man who played the iconic version of Dracula. However the text below (which was in Latin letters, for some reason) merely said Arisztid Olt – Az Élet királya. There were some other stills of more well-known movies, such as The Golem. One particularly strange still was of Orlok, the vampire from Nosferatu, gazing at the camera from and empty village. I did not recall seeing this in the original film, and I felt deeply unnerved by it, but I was about to discover that this was but the least strange of what this museum had to offer.
As I walked back into the hallway, I found that the receptionist was still on the other side of the hall, staring at me with his unblinking eyes, as if he wanted something from me. I waved at him, but nothing I did seemed to affect him. For a moment I considered walking up to him, but I couldn’t get myself to do it. After an awkward silence, I moved on to the next room.
A huge still of a man with jagged teeth and a top hat immediately caught my eye. It felt familiar, but I couldn’t bring myself to remember it.
“London after Midnight.” Spoke a creaking voice from behind me. I turned around and I saw and elderly man with a cane, smiling at me.
“Yes.” I said back to him. “I remember now. But it’s a lost film, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I thought.” He replied. “Until now.” He pointed to an encased film print below the still.
“That’s impossible. The last print burned down years ago!”
“How would you know?”
“I am here on behalf of the NFPF, specifically to find to find this print. We had long giving up on recovering a film as searched for as this one, until last month I got a tip from an anonymous contributor that we might have overlooked some places.”
We were silent for a while, as I felt the weight of this matter sink in.
“So what happens next? I asked.”
“I’ve been trying to bargain with the…” He swallowed.
“…person running this place, but he doesn’t seem very responsive. I don’t know whether he even understands how valuable it is, how valuable anything in this museum is, really. He’s a rather eccentric man, I believe. He even played around with some cameras himself.”
He pointed towards an encased film roll in the corner of the room.
“Nothing I propose to him seems to get through his skull, I’m not sure to what extent he can even understand English. I’ve been arguing with him for days within this strange, isolated place, without progress…”
He fell silent. “One has to catch his breath now and then. You wait here, I’ll see if I can knock some sense into him.”
And so the old man left me in the company of the old, unnerving stills. After wandering some more around the museum, I discovered some more stills from famous films I had considered lost, such as Saved from the Titanic and Dracula’s Death. I quickly grew tired of this sterile, white environment with nothing but unnerving stills and walls of Cyrillic text to keep me company. I was already considering leaving when I heard a voice from directly behind me.
“We broadcast film now.”
Slowly turning around, I gazed directly into the receptionist’s emotionless face. How could I not have heard him coming?
“Jesus man, you scared me.” I whispered. The man frowned.
“We broadcast now.” He told me, slower and heavier this time. I should have ran right there right then, but being the idiot I was, I felt intimidated and followed him. He led me to what looked like some sort of mini-cinema. A small film projector with about 20 chairs, and no windows. He gestured that I should sit down, while he put a film in the projector. I squinted. It was the film that the old man had pointed to. What would he be up to now, anyway? But my thoughts were interrupted by the rattling of the projector, and the film started. There was a stylized title card which simply said:
Then the real movie began. I saw black-and-white shots of vast, abandoned cities, way more modern than could have been filmed at the time. Massive skyscrapers, cracked, decaying and covered in clay and dust. Immense suburbs flooded with sand, riddled with human skeletons. The sun shone brighter than I had ever seen, revealing every gruesome detail. My eyes were glued to the screen, this was unreal.
Then the movie abruptly cut to black, which awoke me from my trance. I looked around, and saw that the receptionist was gone. I heard that the projector was still running and sure enough, the film continued.
This time, the camera was slowly moving forward in a round hallway full of windows. It puzzled me, before I realized that it was an airplane, something else that was far too new for a silent film. As the camera kept moving forward and slowly swung up and down, I realized that it was meant to be in first person. I saw the camera pan down and focus on a watch…
…That looked exactly like mine. I didn’t know what to think of this. After a while, the camera went to the side and lowered itself, as if the person it was meant to represent was sitting down in one of the seats. Over time, I noticed that more and more of the person’s possessions were identical to mine. His briefcase, his clothes, and his wallet, which he opened, revealing a picture of my wife. I was paralyzed. For a moment, I considered that this whole experience had been some strange dream, but I knew, I knew that it couldn’t be. It felt too real.
I saw the plane take off, and for a time, nothing significant happened onscreen, but I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to see what was going to happen to me.
Suddenly, I noticed that the pattern of the clouds had changed. The plane was moving downwards. At first it was barely noticeable, but soon enough I saw small objects falling to the front of the plane. Slowly, I saw the people on the plane get more and more nervous, until they started to freak out, myself included. The camera started shaking wildly and speeding towards no particular place, faster and faster, until the light of the plane dimmed, and the screen went black in an instant.
I noticed that I was sweating as I slowly came out of my trance. I needed to get out of this place, right now. I ran out of the cinema like a cornered animal, through the halls with black and white stills until I reached the receptionist’s lobby, where I paused for a second to catch my breath.
I was about to open the door when I saw an abandoned walking stick, lying on the floor like it had been thrown away. The old man. When I realized what this meant, I sped out of the door. I never wanted to be near this place again, ever. After waiting anxiously at the bus stop, I took the bus back to the inner city. As I was walking back to my hotel, I noticed that the poster that led me to the museum was gone, vanished as if it never existed.
I’m at my third cousin’s house now. I’ve been staying here for a few weeks, trying to forget what happened. He and his family have been very hospitable and nice, but I feel that they are slowly getting tired of my presence. Eventually, I’ll have to take the plane back home. I have trouble sleeping at night because of what happened at the museum, and even with my family I don’t feel safe. Still, I’m trying to enjoy the days I spend here, because I know, that they will be my last.
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