Charm, Courage, and Eruptions of Vulgar Force: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

An Interpretation of Violence’s Threat to Civilization

by Daniel Garrett Volume 20, Issue 11 / November 2016 18 minutes (4311 words)

The Grand Budapest Hotel, written and directed by Wes Anderson,
Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a gift of imagination and time. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film of colors and qualities, a film of friendship and love, leisure and war, a film in which virtues are countered by vices, a film featuring aesthetic appreciation and greed, elegance and crudity, kindness and brutality, and tragedy and hope. It is a look at the past, from the near-present: an author in 1985 remembers his visit to a once great hotel in 1968, when he meets the hotel owner, a poor boy made rich, and learns of the hotel’s greater prominence and splendor in 1932. The 1968 Grand Budapest Hotel has a lot of brown and beige walls, paneling, and furnishings, with low ceilings—unlike the pink, red, and purple décor of the 1930s: the world has become drab, smaller. Yet, the film in which we visit the invented hotel, Wesley Wales Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, has its own charming perfection; and we are given a glimpse into what it means to be conscious and cultivated. Wes Anderson’s film reminds us, too, that it is not possible to be alive without being at least a little vulgar: sometimes vulgarity is another word for vitality (being vulgar is not always bawdy or broad humor, ignorance, excess style or volume, or nastiness; sometimes it is plain-spoken honesty or enthusiasm regarding the facts of life). The film is peopled by the rich and those who serve them, people who assume the prerequisites of knowledge, taste, and wealth—but manner and order are animated or subverted by genuine feeling, by loving passion and rude urges. The cast includes Ralph Fiennes as the hotel’s concierge Monsieur Gustave H and Tony Revolori as the devoted, shrewd lobby boy Zero Moustafa, with Saoirse Ronan as the young baker Agatha whom Zero likes, and Tilda Swinton as Gustave’s intimate friend Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Madame D), and Adrien Brody as Madame D’s son Dmitri, Willem Dafoe as Dmitri’s tough associate Jopling, and F. Murray Abraham as the older Moustafa. The cast is wonderfully diverse and vivid. The film is a delightful object of beauty. It sometimes looks like a pop-up picture book, or a theatrical play. Its production designer is Adam Stockhausen, costume designer Milena Canonero, and cinematographer Robert Yeoman, with editing by Barney Pilling and music by Alexandre Desplat. Yet, it is impossible to think that anyone but Wes Anderson could have directed The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Wes Anderson directed Rushmore (1998), The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Jake Coyle in the March 15, 2014 Washington Post noted that when Anderson “screened his second film, Rushmore, for Pauline Kael, the rarely uncertain critic responded, ‘I don’t know what you’ve got here, Wes.’” Born in Texas in the late 1960s, to a father engaged in public relations and a mother interested in archaeology, and educated in a demanding preparatory school, the film director Wes Anderson is by birth and early life a westerner and a southerner, heir to the past and to a concern with appearances and communication as well as to precise standards; and that—along with a distinctive imagination—may account for his focus on place and community in his work, and for his mastery of details. A lover of literature and a film prodigy—he began making films when a boy—Anderson studied philosophy at the University of Austin. Of course, there is more to his sensibility than a few facts. Consciousness is allusive, ambiguous, ever expanding: transformative, transcendent. Everything seeds consciousness, and consciousness shapes what it wills, what it grows, into art; and Wes Anderson’s filmography would grow to include Bottle Rocket (1996), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), as well as The Grand Budapest Hotel. “I like to see if we can experiment with old-fashioned techniques that I’ve always really liked. I love miniatures and different kinds of animations—things that are like magic tricks. I’m drawn to those. I feel like they have a certain charm. And I just sort of make an assumption that we all know that this is a kind of a concoction,” Anderson told The Washington Post (March 15, 2014). The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by the life and work of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, a member of a Jewish family of merchants and bankers, a trained philosopher, and a writer of fiction, poems, plays, essays, and memoirs. Zweig is associated with both lightness and melancholy. Stefan Zweig, in response to World War II and the cultural convulsions in Europe, moved from Austria to England, then New York, and finally to Brazil, where he committed suicide with his second wife. Zweig lamented the loss of what he knew as civilization.

Civilization is a conglomeration of accomplishments, of thought and feeling, of acts and objects: the arts and philosophy, science and technology, institutions and organizations, morality and manners are the trunk and branches of human life, the sustaining tree that must be cultivated through its roots, the individual mind, heart, and spirit, watered by disciplined work and continued and sensitive effort. It is often forgotten that civilization contains both tradition and change. It can be difficult to define and defend civilization in troubled times, times when such an ideal seems merely the affirmation of an old, conservative establishment, singular, forbidding, and alien to new and genuine impulses. In times of change and confusion and conflict, it is civilization itself that is subject to accusation and condemnation—to destruction. It is important to recall that for each of us civilization is a personal as well as a public resource: a unique arrangement of culture, a particular relationship.

There are people in The Grand Budapest Hotel who are alone, and some are lonely, some are not: loneliness can loosen or still the tongue, rendering a person charming, obnoxious, or just strange. Moments of fellowship offer compassion, insight, and pleasure. The Grand Budapest Hotel begins in an imagined location in Central Europe, in Zubrowka (as Budapest is in Hungary, one has some sense of the history and culture being suggested). A young woman with a copy of a book memorializing the hotel walks through the old Lutz cemetery and visits an author shrine: and we see a commentary by the author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985—the author says that while everyone thinks writers are always inventing stories, people bring characters and stories to writers; and he recalls his visit in 1968 to The Grand Budapest Hotel (in which he, a younger man, looks like Jude Law), and there he observed the solitary clientele and met the elder Monsieur Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, known for Amadeus and The Name of the Rose and almost countless film and television productions), a humble, sentimental man who appreciates the writer’s work and invites him to dinner—a dinner of duck and rabbit—and tells the writer about how he, Moustafa, came to acquire the hotel, “this enchanting old ruin.” As a young man Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) met Monsieur Gustave H, the concierge, an efficient man who took pride in taste and had a love of poetry as well as indulged in pleasure with much older, rich women. (Scenes of Gustave with his lady friends show increasing nudity and sexuality: a kind of striptease in portraiture, with different women participating.) One of them, Madame D, a longtime patron of the hotel, is about to travel, but is apprehensive, afraid to travel: she confesses to Gustave, who reassures her, then tells the lobby boy Zero that “she was shaking like a shitting dog.” Zero seems surprised at the description, but accepts it and much else in his new position at the hotel, a gorgeous, lush place, antique and modern, full of bright red and pink. It is the beginning of an adventure for Zero.

Writing in The New York Times, A.O. Scott found The Grand Budapest Hotel ambitious and original, and declared, “There is no doubt that Mr. Anderson possesses a distinctive sensibility and a consistent visual style, and that instead of striking out in new directions, he tends to embroider and elaborate on familiar themes and pictorial habits. You will see many of them here: static, densely packed, fussily composed frames; traveling shots in which the camera glides alongside the characters like a low-flying bird; action sequences that refuse the usual digital hocus-pocus in favor of the older, artisanal magic of stop-motion animation, matte paintings and rear projection. You will also meet eccentric characters possessed by a kind of madcap melancholy, soulful and silly in equal measure” (March 6, 2014).

The adventure in the film takes off when Zero goes to a newspaper kiosk to retrieve copies of the Trans-Alpine Yodel for hotel guests and sees that the dowager countess Madame D has died. On the train to the reading of the lady’s last will and testament, Gustave admits to having slept with the old woman, saying she was great in bed. The train ride is interrupted by soldiers who inspect and question Zero’s papers, roughing up both Zero and Gustave, who defends Zero (one would not think of Gustave as brave, but he is brave in defense of what he considers right and proper). The interruption is one indication of the changing, more troubling times in which they live: their lives may be in service to leisure, but history is churning and various persons are getting caught in its wheels. The fascists of the era, authoritarian and illiberal, have precise ideas of human perfection and the requirements of nation, an inhuman ideal of humanity—but Gustave, despite very particular standards, accepts human imperfection. Gustave is not surprised by feelings of anxiety or desire, or contemptuous of a scarred or crippled body; and he shares his values with his staff, with Zero. Gustave sees the heart and the effort, the spirit, despite his regard for excellence, ritual, and style.

At the deceased countess’s estate, there is an expanse and expense of wealth: the largest halls and rooms, stairs and stairs, chandeliers, and painting and sculpture and armaments and hunting trophies. Madame D’s family is in attendance, in anticipation of what they may get now that she is dead: she has a son, Dmitri, and three daughters who are most attentive. The executor of her estate is Deputy Kovacs, who is also affiliated with the hotel. (The pressure Dmitri puts on Kovacs to quickly execute the countess’s first will, despite indications of her further instructions that seem to be missing, indicates a lack of respect for the legal profession and for the independent mind, as well as no regard for his mother’s wishes.) The estate butler is Serge—who will both help and hurt Gustave. Madame D leaves a painting, “Boy with Apple,” to Gustave, but Dmitri intends to fight for the painting—and Gustave, with Zero, is compelled to take the painting—wrapped by Serge with a confidential letter attached—out of the house. Gustave’s considerations of what to do with the painting—to preserve or sell it—suggest the experimental nature of thought and the volatility of impulse. Madame D’s death is considered by the police to be a murder, and Gustave is accused—Serge is said to be a witness; and Gustave flees. Yet, Gustave is imprisoned.

Ralph Fiennes as Gustave is more amused and amusing than he has been for a long time. Ralph Fiennes has been a great actor in Schindler’s List (1993), Strange Days (1995), The English Patient (1996), Oscar and Lucinda (1997), and a good number of other films, but he has become, as well, somewhat grim. The part of Gustave seems to have animated him: he is charming, intelligent, kind, officious, and vain. Gustave has heart and spirit as well as an often foolish intensity of emphasis. Fiennes told the March 15, 2014 Washington Post, “Nothing prepared me for the musical brio and sort of sprightliness of the film…I relied upon Wes as a guide. He had written the screenplay, but he has quite an ear for speaking the delivery, the timing. He has a musically precise ear.” In the New York Times (March 6, 2014), A.O. Scott wrote of Fiennes’s Gustave: “Somehow, he is both an ascetic and a sensualist, highly disciplined and completely irresponsible.” In the Los Angeles Times (March 6, 2014), film critic Kenneth Turan wrote: “Because of the way he’s written by Anderson (who shares story credit with Hugo Guinness) and played by Fiennes, Gustave H is also a man of convincing feelings. That means his relationship with earnest lobby boy Zero Moustafa (a fine Tony Revolori), which starts as a master-protégé bond and becomes a real friendship, has an emotional genuineness that is rare in Anderson’s films.”

Tony Revolori, also known as Anthony Quinonez, an actor, photographer, and folk musician, has not been famous but he has been involved in the television and film world since he was a toddler; and he has appeared in the television programs Entourage and My Name Is Earl as well as in the 2010 short film Speeding Teens (for which he acted as editor and cinematographer) and the 2009 baseball film The Perfect Game, about Mexican boys winning the Little League World Series. It is interesting that Revolori’s Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel is the one character we know best: we learn of the death of his family in a time of war, his own arrest and torture, his finding refuge in another land and his gratitude for work at the hotel, and the benefits he finds in association with Gustave and Agatha. Zero Moustafa is the lobby boy-titan, the proprietor of the hotel. It is hard to know if his story is most valuable for how it begins or how it ends, for the struggle or the reward—or the fact that it is a perceptible whole. His story may be, finally, indivisible.

In prison Gustave fights to prove his manhood, but is soon befriended by prisoners who have a plan of escape. What they need are tools; and Zero’s beloved Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) provides dainty tools with which to dig their way out within her delicious baked goods. Somehow one does not question that Agatha would help. (Gustave lauds Agatha’s purity, but his sense of purity is different from a fascist ideal: Gustave seems to affirm Agatha’s simplicity and sincerity, her basic decency, efficiency and sense.) Saoirse Ronan, apparently a born New Yorker reared in Ireland, someone who loves the Irish countryside in which she lives, is an impressive young actress: she seems to bring an effortless conviction to diverse characters in Atonement (2007), The Lovely Bones (2009), The Way Back (2011), Hanna (2011), and How I Love Now (2013). One watches Saoirse Ronan and sees no falsity. (“Wes Anderson is a brilliant director who has his own formula for mapping out every scene and line of dialogue,” Saoirse Ronan told John Hiscock of the March 7, 2014 Mirror, adding that there was a relaxed family atmosphere created among the large cast during filming.) In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave and the imprisoned men use Agatha’s tiny tools for a tunnel and do escape, and Zero joins Gustave, who is further helped by the concierge fraternity, the Society of the Crossed Keys. Gustave and Zero find their way across snowy plains, to a mountain top observatory, and a monastery, where they meet Serge, who confesses that he was forced to falsely accuse Gustave. Serge is soon dispatched by the coldly ferocious Jopling, Dmitri’s brutal right arm. Dmitri has wealth and violence on his side, but Gustave ends up with the painting. Gustave’s faith, love, and pleasure, his right to recognition and reward, have been recognized and fulfilled: but he is not entirely out of danger, as no one who lives is out of danger.

Film Comment’s writer Jonathan Romney named The Grand Budapest Hotel as “the film of the week” on March 12, 2014. “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,” wrote Jonathan Romney, after acknowledging that its director’s work has been perceived by some as too artificial, too precious, and before summarizing its story—the Central European setting, the Soviet influence, the privileged clientele, the film organized by chapters, and the intricacy of its details, its shapes and layers, and the film’s allusion to literature and cinema (that of Wilder, Sternberg, and Mamoulian). “Even the smallest concrete yet imaginary element of Grand Budapest’s main setting—the celebrated spa hotel in the fictional European republic of Zubrowka—was fanatically created by Anderson and company, down to its newspaper of record, the Trans-Alpine Yodel, and its pastry of choice, the mouthwatering Courtesan au chocolat, always packaged in the unmistakable pink boxes from Mendl’s Patisserie,” noted Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan (March 6, 2014).

The Grand Budapest Hotel offers prettiness, but its cumulative effect—the sum of its details—is beauty. The film implements a compendium of tones—affectionate, comic, and elegiac. “If a movie can be elegantly zany, this wholly imaginative, assured fable of a legendary concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), his protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) and the murder of a countess, is it,” wrote The Denver Post’s film critic Lisa Kennedy (March 14, 2014). Lisa Kennedy noted its gifted cast, and the particular chemistry of Ralph Fiennes as Gustave and Tony Revolori as Zero (finding Fiennes as Gustave haughty and humble, daft and deft); and Kennedy offered compliments on the film’s look and music.

In “5-Star Service,” an article in the March 2014 issue of American Cinematographer, the writer Iain Stasukevich called The Grand Budapest Hotel both theatrical and cinematic. (He gives imprecisely the time of the in-film author’s report on the hotel, at the film’s beginning: it is 1985, not the 1970s—before turning to memories of the early 1930s.) While the setting of the film is Central Europe, the film was shot in Germany during short winter days, after much research of locations and other films (Michael Powell’s 1948 film The Red Shoes, and Howard Hawks’ 1934 Twentieth Century, and Love Me Tonight and Grand Hotel, as well as Ernst Lubitsch works such as The Shop Around the Corner from 1940, and the 1932 film Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow and To Be or Not to Be). The research by Anderson and his team influenced certain choices for photography: the production used an Arricam Studio camera provided by Arri Berlin; and the bodies of the film’s characters were presented within large natural and built environments and under high ceilings in large rooms. “When you’re as compositionally specific as Wes and I are, one camera is the only way to go,” Bob Yeoman told Iain Stasukevich. For American Cinematographer, Iain Stasukevich interviewed the film’s technicians for their comments on locations, camera technique, and lighting sources, including use of a Gorlitz department store, an art nouveau building, for the film’s hotel and the concert auditorium the Stadthalle for a mansion trophy room and a hotel dining room, and the use of zoom shots and artificial lighting, and miniatures for certain sequences. (Another note regarding photography: “The film was shot on 200 ASA film stock and, in some instances, we used anamorphic lenses, which meant we needed an adequate aperture, especially when we had several actors in the shot and all of them needed to be in focus. It was great to see that Bob Yeoman isn’t afraid of lower aperture settings; especially today, when everyone who uses digital cameras seems to shoot wide open, trying to use the depth of field to give HD footage a film look,” lighting gaffer Helmut Prein told the online Arri News.)

On the web site that bears his name, the scholar-critic David Bordwell commented on Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel (for a March 26, 1014 internet log entry), examining its “frontal presentation” of the film’s actors, what Bordwell calls a “planimetric style,” creating a stark plane for setting and observation, a style of both comic and formal possibilities, a style used in old films by Buster Keaton and Jean-Luc Godard, and in newer films such as Pulp Fiction, Napoleon Dynamite, and The Traveling Players. It is what can make the film frame seem like a stage. Wes Anderson, according to Bordwell, uses the planimetric style but complicates it by presenting people in groups, editing to emphasize the observational perspectives of characters, using wide-angle lenses, and framing images with variety. Bordwell recognizes the film’s interpretation of history, and its charm, with the eruptions of sex and violence in a whimsical work.

The style of The Grand Budapest Hotel does two things: it creates intimacy between the characters, and context—social and spatial—for the characters, for the perception of the film viewer. Although what we learn of most of the characters is slight, one never questions the want of biography or motive. There is enough of interest in what is happening in the film’s present. The film gives us the past it wants us to have. Even then, do the dates 1932, 1968, and 1985 matter? In 1932, Hungary was developing ties with a fascist Italy; and Hungary was involved with the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia; and a parliamentary election was held in Hungary in 1985 in which the Socialist Workers Party was the principal participant. In 1932, Austria was aligned with Germany and was disturbed by a League of Nations loan that disfavored the association; and in 1968 Austria received Czech refugees; and in 1985 there was something of a scandal when an important public official welcomed a fascist war criminal freed from an Italian prison. Fascism and communism cast huge shadows over Hungary, over Europe and much of the world. The film gives time to us—past and present—but it gives us time with merriment and transcendence attached.

It is a bitter irony—absurd and tragic—that the fascists thought they were defending civilization and yet embodied its repudiation. One can remember the fact of a tragedy and even commemorate it sincerely and thoughtfully without suffering its original pain, as if it just happened, as if one had learned and felt nothing between then and now. A lightness of being, a lightness of spirit and language and touch, can allow a survivor or a descendent to exist without the heavy burden of doubt, grief, or guilt, without malice or vengeance. It can be a kind of liberation. It can be a form of grace. The elegance of image and movement in The Grand Budapest Hotel is thorough. Yet, there have been reservations about even such an accomplishment. It is true that the film stimulates delight more than pain or reverie; but does that mean that it is not deep? The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday thought it lacked depth: “Even though melancholy threads through The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s not a particularly deep film. Comparisons have been made to the wartime comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, but Anderson hasn’t created a playfully stinging satire as much as its softer mirror image. He convincingly mimics the gestures of the genre—abhorrence of authoritarianism, not as a crime against humanity but as an affront to good taste and Old World etiquette—but ultimately seems unable or unwilling to delve under the sumptuous surface and grapple with darker realities” (March 13, 2014). For the online Artforum magazine (March 6, 2014), Melissa Anderson described the film as “Wes Anderson’s latest Kool-Aid-colored diorama, set primarily in the fictional Eastern European country Zubrowska between the wars.” Eastern Europe rather than Central Europe? Zubrowska rather than Zubrowka? Anderson claims “the events of the past are treated like a handful of prized bibelots,” and she describes the characters and actors without respect or sympathy, and finds the film’s shifts in tone coarse.

What are the fundamental nature, sensibility, thought, purpose, and acts of a person? It is possible—and necessary—to make positive discriminations about people, places, and things. Much of what is beautiful, good, and useful in the human world is a result of great effort; and yet appreciation of those things is often a relief from effort—refreshment, redemption. Furnishings, food, wine, poetry, painting, film, sculpture, literature, and the other fine things in life are all part of the appreciated culture of the characters in The Grand Budapest Hotel. People who appreciate such things can take a step back from themselves and see the world, see human existence, and find moments of joy and meaning, of transcendence: molar and molecule, the established and the new, the large and small, the majority and the minority—all are seen to have value. The people who do not know the value of art and philosophical thought, the people for whom all is petty personal emotion and utility, for them the reverence of symbolic representation and interpretation is a mystifying indulgence. They have been and will remain ignorant of an important human dimension, a spiritual resource. People who take art seriously, but want art to seem serious rather than actually be serious can miss the purpose and pleasure of something like The Grand Budapest Hotel, which contains much. The Grand Budapest Hotel is about what threatens but also about what delights.

(Article submitted September 2014)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 20, Issue 11 / November 2016 Essays