In February 1942, the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig and his wife were found dead in Brazil after committing suicide. In his native Austria, World War I had turned Zweig into a pacifist; when Hitler rose to power in Germany, the author fled to America and stayed in New York City for a while before moving to Brazil with his wife. A suicide note mirrored his disillusionment with Europe and its future, which looked utterly dark after two world wars.
The writings of Stefan Zweig came to influence Wes Anderson who became interested in portraying Eastern Europe without defining specific countries or even specific wars. The result is his most stunning film yet.
A journey back to 1932
In the Republic of Zubrowka lies the once-famous Grand Budapest Hotel. In the late 1960s, the guests are few and much of the old splendor is gone. A writer (Jude Law) is intrigued by its history and is introduced to the aging owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who offers to tell him the story of how he came to own it. Over dinner, Zero takes the writer back to 1932, a time when the hotel was still in its prime and its glamorous guests tried hard not to care about the impending war. Zero was a fresh lobby boy then, taken under the wings of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the unflappable concierge who tends to all the guests, especially the aging wealthy women. One of them is Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), who dies a short while after her last stay at the hotel. Gustave and Zero attend the reading of her will where it turns out that the concierge has inherited a valuable painting. This infuriates her son (Adrien Brody)…
Going all in
Anyone who’s familiar with Anderson’s work will feel at ease here, noting his themes, sense of humor, colorful settings and quirky details. But this time it’s like he went all in. The German department store where the hotel interiors were filmed look splendid and so do the model of the hotel exterior and gorgeous matte paintings of the landscape, all done in an old-fashioned way that underscores the fantasy aspect of the story.
The snowy German locations are grandly shot by cinematographer Robert Yeoman and the constant races that take place in them reminded me at times of Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967); there’s a similar Eastern European wit, the same hilarious partnership between a mentor and his protégé (superbly played by Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori) and comically evil villains (a wild-eyed Brody and his outrageously brutal sidekick (Willem Dafoe)). We’ve rarely seen this blend of comedy and earnestness in Anderson’s work; there is indeed much darkness at the bottom of it as the film depicts war and fascism as pointless horrors that keep interrupting our lives and relationships.
The pacifism and humanity of the film is what connects it closest to Zweig’s work. Setting the story in a made-up country whose conflicts are completely unknown (and uninteresting) to us illustrates how irrelevant nationalism should be to mankind. Only, of course it isn’t, especially in Europe. This film portrays an era that we’re happy to see gone, but it arrives at a time when far-right parties throughout the continent are on the rise again, promoting the European sickness that broke Zweig’s heart.
All this might give the impression that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a depressing place to visit, but it really isn’t. It’s a wild ride; silly, funny, romantic, star-studded and fast-paced, most shots resembling little paintings filled with kitsch details. It’s just worth noting that there’s more to the hotel than a glitzy façade. And Europe needs stories like this.
The Grand Budapest Hotel 2014-U.S.-Germany. 100 min. Color. Part Widescreen. Produced by Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven M. Rales, Scott Rudin. Written and directed by Wes Anderson. Cinematography: Robert Yeoman. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Production Design: Adam Stockhausen. Costume Design: Milena Canonero. Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Gustave H.), Tony Revolori (Zero), F. Murray Abraham (Old Zero Moustafa), Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe… Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens.
Trivia: Angela Lansbury was originally offered the part of Madame D., but when she was unavailable Anderson went with Swinton in old-age makeup. The film varies three different aspect ratios, 1.33, 1.85 and 2.35:1, one for each period it depicts.
Oscars: Best Original Score, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling. Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical). BAFTA: Best Original Screenplay, Original Music, Production Design, Costume Design, Make-Up and Hair. Berlin: Grand Jury Prize.
Last word: “I haven’t ever made a movie before that had such a specific historical context, and at the same time I’ve made this choice to vaguely fictionalize it all, and it’s an odd combination. It’s very clear what moments we’re referring to and what region this is taking place in, but we’ve made our own country and our own Europe and we’ve sort of combined the two world wars. Who knows why in the world I felt it had to be done that way. I usually feel the need to invent a world for the characters to live in in the movies I do…” (Anderson, NPR)