Anton Burleski died on April 23rd at the age of ninety-three. There was no outpouring of grief; his name did not trend on Twitter; he was barely mentioned on that evening’s news.

He was the greatest filmmaker of the twentieth century.

When Jonah Punt read the news, he was crestfallen. How many hours, he wondered, had he sat watching Burleski’s work? With this sudden loss, Jonah felt that a part of himself had gone missing. There was a hollow chunk where his heart had once been.

Wendy rapped her knuckles against his cubicle wall. “Got the Henderson report?” she asked in a dull, listless tone.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, it’s just . . .”

The woman heaved a sigh as she watched Jonah hunt amongst the piles of paperwork on his desk. Finally, with a weak smile, he produced the right folder. She snatched it from his hand and then wafted slowly back to her own cramped portion of the room. Peering after her over his partition, Jonah let his eyes wander over the rest of the office. It was a bleak, cold room. A solitary skylight deigned to let a meagre beam of sunlight into the room, but even that made no dent on the dreariness. From open ‘til close the office was in a permanent state of dusk.

When he was sure no-one was looking his way, he ducked back down. As he usually did when he was feeling lost, depressed, or had a few spare minutes, Jonah booted up YouTube on his mobile and searched the familiar old video.

Hunkered down over his phone, Jonah watched as Burleski waddled into the TV studio. Even on the tiny screen he could see the chair buckle as the filmmaker lowered himself down.

Mr Burleski, welcome,” the reedy-voiced host said, adjusting the wide lapels of his seventies-era suit. “Thank you for joining us this evening.”

Thank you for having me,” the director returned in heavily-accented English.

The pair went through the usual era-appropriate pleasantries, before finally getting to the meat of the conversation. The part Jonah had almost memorised. “You’ve been making movie for a good few years now,” the interviewer trilled. “Would you say that there is a recurring theme in your work?

He marvelled as the film-maker’s eyebrows bristled and crawled as he frowned deeply. He knew what was coming, but he still felt goosebumps erupt across his arms as Burleski opened his mouth.

“Jonah!” He spun round and came face-to-face with the grinning form of Ian. Though the smile stretched from one ear to the other, it failed to make any contact with his eyes. “You got the files for the Sandalwood account?”

“Weren’t those due yesterday?” Jonah asked, pulling a wad of folders from his out-tray.

Ian gave a disinterested shrug. “I don’t think anyone’s going to notice, do you?”

Looking around the office, Jonah had to admit that an overdue account seemed to be the last of people’s worries. “You care too much about this stuff,” Ian said, slapping Jonah on the back. “You ought to relax.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

Following another hollow smile, Ian traipsed back to his office. The report he had wandered over to retrieve remained forgotten on the edge of Jonah’s desk. With a resigned sigh, Jonah turned back to his desk. He tucked his phone back into his pocket, the video going unfinished.

He stared at the desk for several long minutes. When it became clear that he would find no interest in the columns of numbers and equations in front of him, Jonah reached back into his pocket and rescued his phone. ‘Movie tonight? X’ he swiftly text. A moment or two later the reply pinged in his hand: ‘Sure. Ur place at 8? XX’.

Jonah sent a quick yes, then placed the phone face down on his desk. Although he no longer wanted to watch the rest of the interview, it still played out in the back of his mind. Burleski’s response seemed to haunt him as he tried to focus on his work.

“Themes?!” the director boomed, almost loud enough to make Jonah think he was sat in the booth next door. “Of course I have themes! If you cannot see them, what are you? Blind? It is passion, that is my theme. A man must have passion in his life. Without passion, we are like fire without kindling; we go out far too soon.”

*

In the end there was no movie. They spent forty-five minutes scrolling through the hundreds of titles, arguing over which they’d already seen, and which they’d never watch even if you paid them. Once the Chinese was delivered, they rewatched an old episode of Friends and then, when they could think of nothing else to erase the boredom, they moved to the bedroom.

Later, when Martin was on his side, snoring as usual, Jonah crept back into the living room and booted up his laptop. Downloaded, long ago, was a copy of Tears Over Carlisle, one of Anton Burleski’s most celebrated works. Balancing the laptop on his folded legs, and popping the headphones over his ears, Jonah pressed play.

Barely an hour into the film, Martin wandered into the room, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He nodded to the screen. “What you watching?” he asked, muffled by a yawn.

“Just a film,” Jonah answered, shifting awkwardly as his off-and-on-again partner settled down beside him. “Any good?” Martin asked, unplugging the headphones.

Jonah gave a muted nod.

“Is it on Netflix?”

“No.” Burleski, in one of his rare later-life interviews, had decried what he called the dereliction of cinema by the streaming public. He had vowed to never allow his films to be posted on streaming sites. As far as Jonah had been able to find, no streaming site had ever asked to platform one of his films.

He sat up slightly; It was coming up to his favourite part. Walter, a photographer haunted by what he’s seen during the second world war, is confronted by Bridget, his childhood sweetheart, after years of neglect.

Do you feel nothing?” she asks, spinning him round to face her. “Do you feel nothing when you take your pictures? Do you feel nothing when you’re surrounded by friends? Do you feel nothing when you see me? Do you feel nothing when you touch me? Do you feel anything anymore, Walter?” Jean Devereaux, Hollywood’s star actress in the sixties, dominates the film with a performance that still robs Jonah of his breath. Hugo Sinclair tries to match her intensity, but it’s no wonder the only Oscar winner in the picture was her. Jean was Burleski’s leading lady in four of his pictures, and watching her coax Walter into his breakdown only amplifies why.

Not long later, the sound of Martin’s snores could be heard. With a heavy sigh, Jonah plugged the headphones back in and finished the film. As the credits rolled, he realised that he was still far from feeling tired. He glanced over at Martin. Waking him was pointless. He looked back at the laptop. He wasn’t in the mood to watch another film, not even one of Burleski’s. A sudden thought struck Jonah. The last film Burleski made was released in 1978; after that, the film-maker had suddenly become a recluse. There were always rumours, however, that there was one more film that had never been released. The idea had always excited Jonah; nor was he the only one.

Knowing that sleep was hours away, he quickly opened up a new tab and went to a familiar, near-deserted corner of Reddit. It was here that Jonah and other Burleski fans met to discuss the director and his heady body of work. They debated whether Hotel Eternity was an allegory for purgatory or divorce; they raged that he was snubbed in the 1969 Oscars’ ceremony; and, of course, they shared rumours of the fabled final film.

I heard Jean Devereaux died during filming, and Burleski refused to recast.”

Apparently the whole thing was funded by the mafia, then the FBI found out and shut it down.”

It was actually just a tax write-off.”

As the years rolled on, the theories became more and more outlandish. Scrolling through the comments, Jonah began to realise these people no longer really cared about finding if the film really existed or not. They were too engrossed in their fantasies. But Jonah still wanted to find it. No, that wasn’t right. Over the last few hours, ever since hearing the news, he realised that he needed to find it. Nothing else mattered to him until he could answer why Burleski, a man who had dedicated his entire life to film-making, would end his career in such an abrupt and anticlimactic manner.

Jonah had been compiling his own theory for a while now. He hadn’t shared it on Reddit yet; there was no group crueller in their critiques than film buffs. But he was sure he was close to finding the Film. The first idea had been sparked by an article published back in the late nineties. It was the first interview Burleski had done in nineteen years, and it was for a film magazine that was cataloguing the Top 100 Most Influential Film Makers. Burleski had been placed at number 64. Some Reddit users were still sore over that.

It hadn’t taken long for the interviewer to broach the subject of that lost project.

Q. Can you give us any information as to what this final film was about?

A. I suppose. It’s what all my films have been about, and so much more. As I was making it, I realised that it was everything I had been looking for. By simply filming it, I was satisfied.

Q. So, will you never release it?

A. Not in my life time, no.

Q. But . . . afterwards?

A. Perhaps, one day, someone may see it. But to release it into cinemas? In this day and age? Where a film is scorned if it doesn’t feature explosions, and loose women, and a joke where jokes do not belong? No. It would be tarnished by such an audience.

Q. Then who would you allow to watch it? And how?

After this question, the interviewer writes that Burleski descended into a dark and thoughtful expression. Whether he was considering the answer, or had suddenly forgotten where he was, the journalist didn’t know. However, the filmmaker seemed to instantly change the subject, and instead started talking about his childhood in a remote village in the former Czech Republic.

Where I grew up, there was no picture house, no cinema. To see films, we had to travel into the city, which was a four-hour journey by bus! So, one day, Yuri decided – Yuri used to own the lighthouse – he decided that he would show the films himself. He drove to the city on the Friday, paid the owner of the local cinema I don’t know how much, and would be given three reels of film. Then, on the Saturday, he would tie a sheet to two poles, and he would play them for the whole village, free of charge! That was how I was able to watch films when I was growing up. That is where I found my passion. It is thanks to Yuri that I became what I am today.

Q. What did this Yuri think of your films?

A. Yuri? He died long ago. Before I made my first picture. He never saw my work.

For the rest of the interview, he gave only vague answers, or he ignored the questions entirely. For most, that article represented the end of Anton Burkleski’s relevance in the world of film. But, for Jonah, it gave him a spark of inspiration. He was sure, re-reading it now, that Burleski had been giving readers a clue.

Jonah had to see that film. He glanced down at Martin’s slumbering form. No, this was something he wanted to do alone. He turned back to the laptop and opened a new tab.

*

Two days later, Ian wandered over towards Jonah’s cubicle, looking for the report he was supposed to file the previous week. But the desk was abandoned. “Where’s Jonah?” he asked, rapping his knuckles on Wendy’s desk.

She gave a disinterested shrug. “Took some holiday, I think.”

“Holiday? Jonah?” Ian said, sceptically. “Thought the guy lived here.”

With that, interest in their colleague, much like interest in their work, quickly waned. If they discovered that he was currently trekking through the mountain ranges of eastern Europe, they’d greet it with a blank look. But Jonah’s interest in his work had a similar lack of existence.

He had never before imagined he would be the sort to jump last minute onto a plane, with just a few scant essentials shoved into a rucksack. It had even been a struggle to take the time to leave Martin a note explaining where he had gone. Not that Martin would understand. He doubted anyone would. But he no longer cared. Had he ever?

As this question smouldered in the back of his mind, Jonah approached the last leg of his unexpected journey. His destination was a small, hidden-away village with a name longer than his arm, and with more consonants than any reasonable tongue could pronounce. Years of research had led Jonah to this small stretch of land by the coast. Burleski had never named it in any of his interviews, but he had left enough clues to help someone determined enough to find the answer. He had no idea if he was in the right place, of course, but Jonah didn’t really feel that he cared. He felt more energised than he could remember.

His excitement, however, soon began to stagnate. He realised that there was a rather looming barrier to his quest; he didn’t speak a word of the language, and neither did any of the villagers he encountered. Even when he resorted to just speaking the director’s names, the only reply he got was a blank, and often suspicious glare. As dusk began to descend, Jonah felt a hopelessness begin to steal over him. Hours of aimless wandering ended with him dropping down onto a bench, staring out to the sea. He’d been an idiot, he realised that now. He’d left his job, his partner, everything, with barely an explanation, and all to chase a forty-year-old riddle, that probably didn’t even exist. The village didn’t even have a hotel for him to spend the night.

He turned at the sound of crunching gravel. A woman with the face of an aged date was coming up to him. She halted a few feet away, watching him with dark eyes. They were both silent for a moment, until . . .

“Burleski?” she said, her voice hoarse with age.

“Err . . . yes,” Jonah said, nodding nervously.

She gave her own slow nod in response. She then jerked her head, inviting him to follow. They walked for around half-an-hour, the village on one side, and the turgid ocean on the other. Finally, they came to an outcrop of rocks jutting out like an accusing finger. At the end Jonah could make out the remains of a building, long destroyed and abandoned. “Yuri’s lighthouse,” he murmured.

The woman nodded, then continued down the jetty. With trembling legs, Jonah followed. The only sounds were the lapping of water against the rocks, and the occasional whistle of wind as it wound its way through the corpse of the lighthouse. No attempt had been made to rebuild the structure, but a little cabin had been built beside it. The old lady opened the door and led the young man inside.

Jonah stood awkwardly as his companion removed her shawl and started lighting lamps scattered around the room. Eventually she returned, this time with a tin can in her hand. She waggled it under his nose. There was a clinking of coins from inside, and Jonah quickly realised what she meant. Clearly, she wasn’t as charitable as Yuri had been. But, still, knowing that he was so close to his goal, Jonah dropped the change into her tin.

Satisfied, the woman dropped the tin onto a shelf, then beckoned Jonah to follow her into another dark room. As he stepped in, he felt his breath quicken and his heart practically skipped a beat. Both an old projector, stood on three spindly legs, and a tatty-looking armchair were aimed directly at a white-washed wall. Nodding to the chair, the woman hobbled over to the projector. From a locked cupboard she pulled out a familiar looking circular canister. At this point Jonah’s legs gave up. His knees buckled and he dropped down into the chair. A cloud of dust erupted at his landing.

The projectionist took no notice of him as she removed the reel of film and then expertly threaded it into the mechanism. When she noticed Jonah watching, she jerked her head impatiently towards the wall. He obediently turned around, gripping the arms of his seat as he waited for the film to start. Moments later came the spine-tingling whirr of the projector, and a shaft of light shot over his head. The screen lit up, dominated by a three, then a two, and finally . . .

It took a moment for it to focus, and the image still wobbled, but a woman appeared on the screen. She wasn’t anyone Jonah recognised; he wasn’t even sure she was an actress. She wore a blue and white striped bathing suit, her hair cut into a neat bob, and when the film started, she was staring out across a pool. No one but her was in focus. She turned her head, looking directly at Jonah. Her face broke open into the most intoxicating smile, and held her hand up in a playful attempt at protecting her identity. There was no sound but the clacking of the film reel, but he could almost hear her laughter as she began to blush. She was saying something whilst pointing, maybe trying to encourage the cameraman to turn his attention to the other guests. But he was having none of it.

The camera panned slowly around her, admiring her from head to toe. Whilst she went on blushing, her efforts to make him stop lessened. Jonah held his breath throughout. He didn’t care who this woman was, or where she was. All that mattered was that she mattered. It was clear that this person was the centre of the cameraman’s world. Eventually, when the shot returned to its first position, she waved him away again. No, he realised. She was waving to someone else. Two boys appeared in the frame, bounding up to the heroine. They were breathless and dripping, but both wore grins that matched hers. As she spoke, their eyes kept flitting from her, to the camera, and then to the pool. Finally, when she was done, they turned all their attention towards the person behind the camera. Jonah could just imagine their devilish giggles as they shot from her side and out of frame.

The image shook and lost focus as they started their assault. Then the camera man was revealed. Unceremoniously robbed of his device, he was dragged into the picture by the laughing lady. Now held by younger, less experienced hands, the camera angle was lower and trembled. But Jonah instantly recognised the new figure. He wore a large pair of Bermuda shorts, and a plain white vest, but he was still unmistakably Anton Burleski. His eyebrows bristled, and his eyes sparkled like gems. There was even the shadow of a smile nestled in his thick beard. He stood awkwardly next to the beautiful woman; he was clearly uncomfortable being under the camera’s eye. But, when she snaked an arm around his waist, that coy, unfamiliar smile, stretched across his face. His mouth dropped open with a silent roar of laughter as she laid a kiss on his temple.

Jonah, entranced, marvelled as Burleski wrapped his arms around her tiny waist and lifted her off her feet. He gave her a brief spin, released her, and then pounced on the boys wielding his camera. But Anton never made it back behind the lens. The camera turned and zoomed ahead, racing around the edge of the pool. He caught only flashes of other people, all of them jumping to avoid being run down, before the cameraman finally slowed to a stop and rounded back on their original target.

Anton remained wrapped in the woman’s arms; her face beamed with laughter, whilst his glowed with a smile that seemed unfamiliar to his lips. His eyes scanned the party, lingering for only a moment on the camera, and Jonah, before moving on. Jonah continued to watch, bewitched by this homemade movie. He lost track of all time, and the world he had waiting outside, he couldn’t help but remember the words with which Burleski concluded his interview all those years ago:

“When we have passion in our lives, we burn so brightly the world has no option but to stop and marvel.”

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