Film of the Week: The Grand Budapest Hotel
If you were ever irritated by Wes Anderson’s tendency to make the world resemble a doll’s house, The Grand Budapest Hotel will really get under your skin. Last month at the Berlin Film Festival, the miniature model of the titular establishment, used in the film—a pink-and-white wedding-cake palace—was placed on display in the lobby of the Hotel Adlon. A hotel within a hotel—you can hardly get more Andersonian. Then there’s one of the posters: people often object to Anderson using actors as mere puppets, and here the film’s stars are reduced even further to a mere cartoon of dramatis personae—17 actors rendered in stylized head-and-shoulders likenesses, like cigarette cards.
In a favorable review of The Grand Budapest Hotel in The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy suggests that Anderson’s approach “may well seem off-putting and weird to the general public.” That seems not to be the case: Anderson’s film took $800,000 domestically in its opening weekend, screening at only four theaters, making it his most successful opening to date; it also earned £1.53 million on its U.K. opening. The great wager that Anderson makes and wins in The Grand Budapest Hotel is that a piece of film art can be extremely refined, artificed, and calibrated virtually to the point of being mechanical—yet can still accommodate emotional content, even if that content communicates itself on a rather indirect, rarefied level. The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extremely funny film, though the humor may have you chuckling mutedly, one eyebrow arched, rather than guffawing. It’s also a very sad film, charged with a nostalgic melancholy that is part of its very structure. This is a film about the past, the disappearance of societies and times, and the fragility of memory, all addressed within the context of the modern history of an imaginary European nation.
The film starts, appropriately, in a graveyard: a title announces that we’re in Zubrowka, “on the furthest eastern borders of the European continent—once the seat of an empire.” A young girl in a beret, greatcoat, and punk T-shirt enters the cemetery and gazes at a monument to “Our National Treasure”—a bronze bust of a man, on the plinth of which admirers have hung hotel keys in tribute. She is reading a copy of this man’s novel The Grand Budapest Hotel, and we cut to the unnamed Author (Tom Wilkinson) narrating his story to camera in 1985. He recounts how, years before, his young self (Jude Law) had stayed at the once legendary and luxurious spa hotel, which had already fallen into Soviet-era decrepitude (both incarnations magnificently designed by Adam Stockhausen): the foyer, soon to be seen in its former cathedral-like vastness, has been boxed in with a false ceiling, the erstwhile purple and scarlet splendor replaced by functional, tawdry green and orange; what once was marble is now Bakelite. In the hotel’s crumbling baths, the young author meets the hotel’s mysterious elderly proprietor, Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham)—and it’s his narration over dinner that evokes the hotel’s last days of glory in the early Thirties.
The film, in chapters, recounts the apprenticeship of young Zero (Tony Revolori), then an eager lobby boy, to the effortlessly soigné, flamboyantly cynical, yet impeccably charismatic Gustave H., who is not only the most accomplished of concierges but a beloved gigolo to the aged grandes dames who frequent the establishment. At the heart of the film, then, is a picaresque bildungsroman, but Anderson takes his time in getting to that heart, taking us through four levels of narration before we reach the central story, which therefore has the status of a half-remembered dream, or of a tall tale improvised on the spot.
This structure is an example of Anderson’s perennial passion for frames, boxes, and other distancing devices (The Royal Tenenbaums was similarly presented as the film of an apocryphal novel). The Grand Budapest Hotel begins with a process that effectively unwraps the gift box of Anderson’s confection, layer by layer, until we get to the bejeweled goodie within. In fact, the film is the inverse of the hotel itself: where that stately establishment is all glitter and grandeur on the outside, with some squalor and mundanity within (Gustave’s own quarters are cramped, monastic), the story’s “wrapping” is as plain as it can be, taking us from the drabness of modern Zubrowka, to the glum nadir of the hotel’s decline, finally to the dreamlike splendor of old. The film is like a diamond wrapped in an old newspaper, covered in a further layer of plain brown paper, then in a plastic supermarket bag.
As we know, Anderson has a thing about partitioning: look at the complex geometry of the homes in The Royal Tenenbaums (02) and Moonrise Kingdom (12), or the Mondrian-like division into rectangles of the train compartments in The Darjeeling Limited (07). Here too everything is about boxes and enclosures, and their eventual opening (even the leather coat worn by Willem Dafoe’s murderous goon reveals a secret pocket). The hotel is mirrored in other hyper-organized spaces: the museum where Jeff Goldblum’s Deputy Kovacs meets his end; the dark, crypt-like interiors of the chateau of Tilda Swinton’s ancient dowager (it’s filled, at the reading of her will, by hordes of black-clad grotesques à la Charles Addams: this is the closest Anderson has come to making a Tim Burton film); and the prison from which Gustave makes an escape that’s orchestrated magnificently as a chaotic but mechanical comic fugue. All these spaces are prisons in their way, not least the hotel: what are its guests if not inmates, its liveried staff if not wardens?
In this universe, everything comes in boxes, figuratively and literally: the interior of a train sleeping car is as neatly “gridded” as the front page of the local newspaper. The world is even filled literally with boxes, the bright pink packages from Mendl’s Patisserie; when Zero and his beloved (Saoirse Ronan) fall through the roof of a Mendl’s truck, they find themselves in a box full of boxes. (In his preface to Matt Zoller Seitz’s book The Wes Anderson Collection, novelist Michael Chabon compares Anderson’s mania with framing to that of artist Joseph Cornell: a “magic” method for capturing the fragments of a lost, perhaps imagined world).
It seemed that Anderson’s mania for hyper-detailed geometric perfection had gone as far as it could in Moonrise Kingdom; after that, surely he’d have to loosen up. But no—in The Grand Budapest Hotel, he’s gone further, embraced his fetish with absolute exuberance, and made his most explicit and unashamed celebration of artifice to date. Not everyone, as Todd McCarthy says, will like it. And that’s a point that the film concedes with some wit: this is partly a story about people “not getting it,” not realizing that they’re living in a fragile fake utopia that’s about to evaporate. (The film’s belated belle époque is not a utopia for all: for the hotel patrons, yes, but not for servants like the immigrant Zero, who has come from a brutal background, his village razed to the ground in a war.) And this is a story about people not realizing the value of what lies around them. The plot is built around the pursuit of a supposedly priceless and magnificent painting, Boy with Apple by one Johannes van Hoytl. All the other paintings in the room, Gustave opines, are worthless junk—but that junk includes an apocryphal, and very raunchy, Egon Schiele canvas that meets a bad end, lost to history in the flash of one character’s temper.
If The Grand Budapest Hotel turns to be Anderson’s most popular film, it will also be the point at which non-admirers declare most vociferously that they have had enough. In the Financial Times, Nigel Andrews complained that the film was about as nourishing as a crate of Fabergé eggs: “not a sustaining calorie, narrative or dramatic, in sight.” Kyle Buchanan on Vulture complained that the director’s and DP Robert Yeoman’s increasing obsession with rectilinear blocking (“Wes Anderson characters have lost the ability to walk in diagonal lines”) makes “[Anderson’s] movie world . . . flatter than ever.” The harshest critique comes from David Thomson in The New Republic, who sees The Grand Budapest Hotel as “a rococo dead end, a ferment of decoration, unwitting complacency and ignorance.” Not the least of his complaints is that Anderson credits the film as inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), which seems to have offended him as presumptuous in the same way that some of us thought it was cheeky for Lars von Trier to dedicate his Antichrist to Tarkovsky.
Thomson accuses Anderson of “indifference to the depth of experience that preoccupied Zweig,” and perhaps he has a point insofar as The Grand Budapest Hotel seems only tenuously connected to Zweig’s writing. The filmmaker has said that he was inspired partly by the hotel setting of Zweig’s story “The Post Office Girl,” and by the device of the level-by-level approach to a narrative core, a method hardly peculiar to Zweig. Personally, I feel that an overall flavor of Zweig is simply one layer of resemblance in the film: that the theme of servitude in old Europe’s service industry is far more reminiscent of Bohumil Hrabal’s 1971 novel I Served the King of England (filmed in 2006 by Jiri Menzel). I also get strong bouquets of another Austrian writer, Joseph Roth (notably, his end-of-empire novel The Radetzky March), of Hergé’s Tintin adventure King Ottokar’s Sceptre, plus Josef Lada’s illustrations to The Good Soldier Svejk. Then there is another avowed influence of Anderson’s, the cycle of Thirties and Forties Hollywood films about a half-imagined, half-remembered Europe created by émigré directors: Wilder, Sternberg, Mamoulian et al.
Thomson delivers a crushingly harsh verdict on Anderson’s film: “It relates to the atmosphere and texture of Stefan Zweig like an achingly sweet pastry on a tin plate at Auschwitz-Birkenau.” There’s a long, complex debate to be had on the question of whether it is appropriate or adequate to view the horrors of modern history through a lens of humor or indeed whimsy—a debate that would have to span from To Be or Not to Be and The Great Dictator to their echo in the Zig-Zag militia in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
If you take a moralizing view, then yes, it could be considered unforgivably trivializing both of European history and of Zweig’s own experience to portray Nazi-like figures as cartoons, eight decades after Lubitsch’s and Chaplin’s films. But The Grand Budapest Hotel is, in any case, about something other than good people and snarling baddies, for its heroes are deeply flawed and deluded. Gustave is vain, arrogant, supercilious, venal, and a liar, not least to himself: he vows never to part with the precious painting he has inherited from his dead mistress, then almost, in the same breath, makes plans to sell it and escape to luxury. The film ends with elderly Zero paying homage to his mentor as the last bastion of civilization in a world increasingly becoming barbaric—although Anderson’s tabletop-model Europe, with its miniature mock-Nazis, is hardly as brutal as the real 20th century. But Anderson is only too aware of the place of fantasy in his picture, as the older Zero remarks of Gustave: “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he even entered it. But I must say, he maintained the illusion with grace.”
Anderson’s “world of yesterday” (to use the title of Zweig’s memoir) has not merely vanished—it never really existed. It’s a gorgeous, fastidious reconstruction of a dream, and that glittery chimera contains its own material and moral rot, its own deep sadness and horror (look how many characters die in the film, and how horribly). It may have been superfluous for Anderson to flag up his homage to Zweig in the credits, but it’s honest of him. To find him wanting in comparison to that writer’s seriousness and depth of feeling is beside the point. The nostalgia for a lost world that never was is more acute in The Grand Budapest Hotel than in any of Anderson’s films, and it’s the flippancy of the whole enterprise, the dandyish panache so resembling Gustave’s, that makes the superficiality so poetic—or if you like, so paradoxically deep. It is a film that maintains its illusion with grace—and ruefully unmasks that illusion every bit as gracefully.