by Nick Pinkerton
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson, U.S./UK, Fox Searchlight
To describe Monsieur Gustave H. as merely “efficient” would be a gross understatement—like calling Hitler a loony failed artist. The main character of Wes Anderson’s eighth feature film, M. Gustave is the famed concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a punctilious micromanager with an attention to detail that borders on the obsessive-compulsive. He carries in his head a detailed file catalog of return guests’ names and peccadillos, and commands a small army of bellhops and lobby boys to do his bidding. Crossing the hotel with a measured stride and rattling off orders, he recalls no figure in an Anderson film so much as Anderson himself, playing on-set ringmaster in his 2006 TV spot for American Express.
Hitler is a key character in The Grand Budapest Hotel too, though he never appears on-screen or is mentioned by name. M. Gustave is played with blithe charm by Ralph Fiennes, the English actor who achieved real movie stardom as SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Goeth in 1993’s Schindler’s List. Fiennes’s M. Gustave is a genteel swindler, a gay gigolo who makes love to elderly, invariably blonde women out of what appears to be genuine affection, but never with the question of where his name might appear in the will wholly out of mind. He is, in short, a petty crook, though one who is always “liberally perfumed” with a product called L’Air de Panache and impeccably turned out. As such, he is in no way equipped to deal with the very real, very dangerous gangsters who are about to overrun Europe.
Anderson adores overtures overburdened with backstory, and The Grand Budapest Hotel has a particularly ornate framing device: the movie proper is nestled within an elaborately impractical nesting doll–type structure. This is only suiting for a film besotted with the lovely and the useless. It begins with a young woman carrying a hardcover book and wearing a number of punky badges entering something marked as Old Lutz Cemetery to visit a memorial to a figure known only as “The Author.” From here we flip back to 1985 and encounter The Author as a middle-aged man (Tom Wilkinson) in his study, posing as for posterity to recall the events that inspired his masterpiece, a visit some decades earlier to the Grand Budapest Hotel. (His Great Man poise is broken by a clamor off-screen, as decorum will be constantly interrupted in the film to come.) Another flip back, and we are transported to the hotel in 1968, somewhere behind the Iron Curtain. The aesthetic dictates of Communism have reduced this once-famed spa resort in the Alpine Republic of Zubrowka to institutional ugliness, all poured concrete on the outside and synthetic orange within. The Young Writer (Jude Law), the Author as a young man, is staying there, and he is astonished to find one of the richest men in Europe among his fellow guests. The presence of Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) is wholly inexplicable in such an unfashionable backwater’s moldy Arabian baths, but he strikes up a conversation with the Young Writer while they are both reclining in steaming mud, and proposes to explain his history with the hotel over dinner. He begins, as does our story, in 1932—another flip back—when the Grand Budapest was still pink and frothy, ormolu-plated and vapidly beautiful, and when Mr. Moustafa was one of the lobby boys assigned to do the bidding of M. Gustave, his mentor and friend.
In those days Mr. Moustafa, known only as Zero (Tony Revolori), was a penniless displaced refugee fleeing another real-sounding war in another fake-sounding country. Zero wears a crookedly drawn-on pencil moustache in emulation of the idolized M. Gustave, and in the mature Mr. Moustafa, we can hear M. Gustave’s orotund circumlocution echo through the decades. But back to ’32: M. Gustave’s tidy world is upset when one of his client conquests, the widow Madame Celine Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, a.k.a. Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, makeup-aged into infirmity and with a drooping frown), kicks off, leaving M. Gustave a priceless Dutch portrait called “Boy with Apple.” This enrages her son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), a prissy aristocrat who belongs to the Zubrowkan fascist group, and who leaves his dirty work to his right-hand thug, J. G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe, wearing skull-patterned knuckle-dusters). Together they frame M. Gustave for the murder of Madame D., and he’s thrown into a cell block in the dreaded Check-point 19. From here M. Gustave must rely on his lobby boy to help him escape, only to discover, once free, that all of Zubrowka has become a prison-state in his absence.
Through the years, Anderson’s star-clogged casts have snowballed—once an actor appears in one of his movies, it seems that he or she thereafter will appear in all of them. In addition to the above-named, The Grand Budapest Hotel contains variously minor roles for Mathieu Amalric, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Léa Seydoux, Saoirse Ronan, and Owen Wilson. The casting is by typage, a kind of cinematic shorthand: When you see shirtless Keitel covered in faded prison tattoos, you are looking at tough personified. Goldblum’s Kovacs, a lawyer looking after the affairs of Madame D.’s estate, is a white-collar Jew assimilated and ignorant of his imminent peril, looking unusually spindly and breakable in wide shots. As for the first sight of Murray wearing a grand hussar moustache borrowed from Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh, well, that’s the whole punchline. Other actors are here for the cinematic connotations that they bring with them, such as Dafoe who, vacuum-packed into black leather and hunched over a torpedoing motorcycle, recalls his roles in The Loveless and Streets of Fire. Anderson even refers back to his own cinema: newcomer Revolori has something of the tadpole-ish look of Raleigh St. Clair’s subject Dudley in The Royal Tenenbaums.
The different periods in which The Grand Budapest Hotel is set are denoted by three aspect ratios: 2.35:1 for the modern material, 1.85:1 for 1968, and full frame 1.33:1 for 1932. (It has been heartening to see the incremental comeback of the “Academy ratio” box, in ravishing films like Miguel Gomes’s Tabu and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida.) All of this signifies that The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t take place in the real Europe, so-called, but halfway between there and the Europe of the mediated imagination. There is a rooftop scene that might belong to Paris or Naples as dreamed by Borzage, a pursuit scene leading through a museum that recalls Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, skiing through confectionary snow out of Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, model tanks from Bergman’s The Silence and hotel shots by way of that film and Kubrick’s The Shining, and in the middle of it all, M. Gustave in Willy Wonka–purple togs. A closing credit, however, pays tribute to the influence of not a filmmaker, but an author: Stefan Zweig, the writer whose 1942 memoir The World of Yesterday chronicled his youth in fin-de-siècle Vienna, his dream of a unified Europe in the years after the First World War, and the ultimate dashing of that dream.
Zweig wasn’t the only writer mourning the old world then on the brink of being irretrievably lost. In Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, also published in ’42 and beginning the week before England joins the Second World War, the author gives the following thought to his recurring character Basil Seal: “It is a curious thing… that every creed promises a paradise that will be absolutely uninhabitable for anyone of civilized taste.” The 1932 chapter of The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in the moment when two of the ideologies which seemed uninhabitable to Waugh and Seal, Fascism and Communism, have had their way with the Republic of Zubrowka. Such “before the fall” moments hold a fascination for Anderson; interviewing him before the release of Moonrise Kingdom, I was struck by how he regarded the movie’s early-sixties setting: “[T]hese kids that are in the story, she’s bound to end up at Berkeley or something and he’s probably going to get sent to Vietnam, maybe he’s going to just miss it, that’s the culture they’re about to head into.” Nostalgia is key to Anderson—a nostalgia for childhood that can border on the unseemly, yes, but in this latest film it’s for a time when the world itself was younger. Or perhaps older? “It was an enchanting old ruin,” The Author will recall of the Grand Budapest, a microcosm of Mitteleuropa. “But I never managed to see it again.”
Anderson went to Europe for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and since, as he told interviewer Matt Zoller Seitz in the recent coffee table-sized The Wes Anderson Collection, he hasn’t “spent more than six months of a year in America.” This expatriation hasn’t always seemed like a creative boon, and Moonrise Kingdom was a welcome homecoming—the reacquaintance with images and fetish items indigenous to his native land seemed to reinvigorate Anderson after 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, his worst film. Like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Darjeeling is the work of an American outsider trying to take on the tragedy of others. Three Yanks abroad in India witness the drowning of a young boy and, punctured by the loss, are subsequently drawn to a deeper experience of the country in which they’ve only been tourists up to now. The means by which Anderson tried to access that loss, however, showed an overdependence on old tricks, counting on the jukebox jolt of a Kinks soundtrack cue to shake loose emotion.
To learn that Anderson is making a film that deals with the rise of Fascism in Europe, then, sends up a great big, immaculately crisp red flag. Once Zweig had completed his memoirs in exile, he and his wife Friderike committed suicide together in their new home of Petrópolis, Brazil. This is a depth of loss not readily accessible to a kid out of Texas whose experience of prewar Europe comes from The Shop Around the Corner. What Anderson does in Grand Budapest, however, is avoid diving head-first into his topic, and this delicate reticence allows him to probe deeper. Quentin Tarantino avoided the death camps in Inglourious Basterds, but by taking Django Unchained directly onto the plantations he revealed the essential puerility of his worldview in the face of historical tragedy. Anderson seems to have developed a better grip on the limits of his style, and intuits that there are certain places that he ought to tread lightly, if at all.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t fascism in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it’s a gradually encroaching force on the margins of what we’re shown, represented by a slow escalation of casual cruelty. There have been instances of violence in Anderson’s movies before—the pirate attack in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, for example—but never as in Budapest Hotel, which goes from a few bloodied noses to a Persian cat being thrown from a great height, a handful of fingers being clipped off in a slamming door, and, finally, a rifle butt delivered to the face with perfunctory brutality.
The Fascists, when they first come calling, are on their best behavior. M. Gustave has a sort of mirror image in Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton, the Moonrise Scout Master), a well-bred and mannerly officer who, when he was a boy, was befriended by M. Gustave at the Grand Budapest. Along with the casting of Fiennes, this goes some ways toward suggesting that the fastidiously orderly ideologies being counterposed here, courtly manners and Prussian efficiency (and Boy Scout conscription, for that matter), aren’t so completely unalike in their origins, a self-awareness dearly to be desired. However, a total change in the rules of the game is evident in the contrast of two matched scenes set in train compartments during border crossings, one early and one late in the film. In the first, M. Gustave smooths things over with Henckels according to the old rules of decorum; in the second, those rules no longer apply. There will be no smoothing over, no hair’s-breadth escape on pizzicato tiptoes, no hiding from jealous husbands in boudoir farce, no winning ironic ripostes. The stakes have changed. To Anderson, Old Europe was a caper, and now the caper is over.
The politesse of Henckels gives way to the uncouthness of occupying armies running roughshod over everything, the arrival of those whom M. Gustave calls “pockmarked Fascist assholes.” (More than just Old World manners, M. Gustave’s dialogue suggests the double life that existed beneath carefully maintained appearances—whenever he can let his tact drop, he lapses into cursing like a roustabout.) Watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, you might even get the impression that the worst thing about the fascists was their awful manners. Which of course is exactly what M. Gustave would think—nowhere is his horror so evident as when he returns to the occupied Grand Budapest to find it in chaos and disarray. By aligning his movie so nearly with the viewpoint of his frivolous protagonist who, at the distance of two narrators and generations, is the controlling voice in the narrative, Anderson may seem himself frivolous, but this facility is paradoxically a kind of profundity. The last thing that can bring WWII closer to us now is more drab olive and gray, more sumo-press insistence on the weight of events—it was precisely the reluctance to go for out-and-out comedy that made the similarly talent-loaded The Monuments Men ultimately superfluous.
I’ve long been taken with a quote attributed to another Viennese writer, Karl Kraus, whose particular specialty was the art of the paradox. While the news of the bombing of Shanghai was on everyone’s lips, a friend encountered Kraus sitting in some coffeehouse and quibbling over matters of grammar. “I know that everything is in vain when the house is burning,” Kraus said, “But I have to do this as long as it is at all possible; for if those who are obliged to look after commas had made sure they are always at the right place, then Shanghai would not be burning.” In this fussy credo we can see something of M. Gustave. Civilization might be saved with the right floral arrangement or shade of nail polish, and if everything is looked after just so, maybe Europe wouldn’t become a slaughterhouse.