Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel is just exquisite, a bittersweet confection as beautifully shaped as the Mendl’s pastries served to honored guests by M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes, in one of the great performances of his career), the legendary concierge of the hotel of the film’s title. Like all Wes Anderson films, the film’s delicate artificiality (even preciosity) is evident in every carefully framed shot, in every time actors face and address the camera, in every perfectly staged set piece. Watching the film last night, I kept wanting to hit a pause button; there’s always something going on in the background of that production design, some detail in the corner of the frame that you just don’t want to miss.
But of course, the mannered, stylized performances also contrast with the shocking vulgarity of some (not many, just enough) of the lines. When M. Gustav is arrested and imprisoned (in the grimmest of Eastern European hellholes), we think ‘he’s so high class, so hoity-toity, how can he possibly survive?’ But, visited in the pen by his loyal assistant, Zero (Tony Revolori), he growls “you can’t be a candy-ass in a place like this,” and we know he’s going to be fine.
That’s the key to the film, I think. M. Gustav represents civilized values. He’s endlessly polite, endlessly charming, endlessly suave and cultured and completely on top of his job. He’s the best concierge in Europe, and if his understanding of his duties includes sleeping with the odd wealthy elderly widow, it’s all part of the service, and always in the most exquisite good taste. When he escapes with prison, and Zero loyally waits by the sewage culvert from which he emerges, Gustav takes the time to upbraid Zero about his lack of preparedness. Zero hasn’t thought of a hideout for them, he hasn’t provided an escape vehicle; worst of all, he’s forgotten M. Gustav’s cologne. Gustav chews the kid out, then is stricken with remorse for it, and elaborately apologizes. All the while, of course, they should be high tailing it out of there. But first things first. A gentleman apologizes, and only then escapes.
We’re told almost nothing about Gustav’s past, and only a little about Zero’s. But what we are told is sufficient; it’s a raw and brutal and violent world out there. And the best way to survive is to cling ever more fiercely to civilization, to its forms and manners, to its high culture and higher ideals.
Anderson gives the film a five act structure (of course he does), and begins it with a series of flashbacks. A young woman, living in the bleak gray of an eastern bloc nation, visits the grave of The Author. Cut to the Author, now elderly (Tom Wilkinson), finishing a memoir, interrupted by grandchildren. Cut to the Author as a young man (Jude Law), staying at the now hopelessly run-down Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets an elderly Zero (F. Murray Abraham). Then cut to Zero’s youth, as lobby boy to M. Gustav, in the 30’s, when most of the film takes place. In the end, we return to the Author’s grave, and the young woman, reading a book; presumably the one we’ve been following, about the hotel and its concierge. And there we go. What survives, is literature. The part of the human spirit that endures is cultured, refined, well-read. A beloved book can transcend even the ugliest of realities.
The tone of the film is so light, and so comedic, it feels like a trifle. But it’s not. One of M. Gustav’s elderly patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) has died, and her nephew Dimitri (Adrien Brody) hopes to inherit. It turns out, though, that she’s left an immensely valuable painting, Boy With Apple, to Gustav. Dimitri wants it all, and he has an evil henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), ready to murder anyone who stands in his way. Dimitri gets Gustav falsely accused of murder, and imprisoned; he escapes, with the help of an elderly-but-ferocious inmate, Ludwig, (Harvey Keitel, demonstrating all kinds of growly Harvey Keitel schtick). Meanwhile, a well-meaning and decent Army officer, Henckels (Ed Norton), is trying to sort the whole thing out. And Gustav’s escape is aided by a secret society of concierges, including Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson. A complicated plot, in other words, with an army of terrific character actors popping in for a scene or two each.
But to what end? To show, finally, the triumph of brutality and violence over civilization, at least potentially, and also, of course, historically. It’s an extraordinarily funny and engaging film, but it’s also bittersweet; things do not turn out well for M. Gustav, nor for his friends. I haven’t mentioned Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Zero’s brave and loyal fiancee, but her character epitomizes the film’s large themes. She’s a cake-maker, for Mendl, a mean and demanding boss. She also has a large birthmark on her face. She falls in love with Zero, and eventually marries him. (At one point, Gustav rhapsodizes about how her finest quality is ‘her purity.’ The look on Tony Revolori’s face was priceless; he knows full well what they’ve been up to.) So it’s a love story? Well, yes and no. It’s the thirties. We learn her fate; she just dies, as so many did in those terrible times. Courage and kindness, loyalty and love didn’t much matter in a world gone mad.
In the closing credits, we learn that the film is dedicated to (and based on), the writings of one Stefan Zweig. I expect that most viewers of the film wouldn’t know who that was. There was a time when Zweig was the most popular author in Europe, and even in the US (he never really caught on in England). He was a novelist, a playwright, a critic and historian, but the short story was his preferred form, and he crafted hundreds of them. They’re very much like Wes Anderson films, actually; beautifully executed, funny, warm, a bit artificial, tasteful. I know him primarily through an odd book, rather a favorite of mine: Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. It’s a collection of critical/personal essays, each inspired by one quotation from one favorite author. Here’s his quotation from Zweig:
With whom have we not spent heart-warming hours there, looking out from the terrace over the beautiful and peaceful landscape, without suspecting that exactly opposite, on the mountain of Berchtesgaden, a man sat who would one day destroy it all?
Zweig was Austrian, from Vienna, and he was a product of that time and place, of Vienna, opera and concert halls and gardens and monuments, the most civilized society in Europe. He eventually settled in Salzburg, where he assembled the most magnificent personal library in Europe, and turned his home into a permanent literary salon. But underneath Vienna’s politesse, beneath the civilized veneer, was the most rabid and ferocious anti-Semitism; Vienna was not just where Zweig set his most charming stories, it’s where a failed art student learned the craft of rabble-rousing. And in 1938, a Nazi committee declared Zweig’s library ‘decadent’, and burned it to the ground. And in 1942, Zweig and his wife, rather than live under the rule of a thug, chose to commit suicide.
We see that too, in this, yes, mannered and precious and charming and hilarious film, but also in the brass knuckles Willem Dafoe wears as Jopling, and in the thuggish prison guards and the thuggish brutes who demand to see Gustav’s paperwork on a train. And in one extraordinary scene, in which Dimitri, seeing Gustav and Zero, pulls out a gun in the hotel, and fires, and room after room of soldiers all open up as well, everyone shooting at everyone, amidst the Art Deco splendor of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s funny, but it’s also pretty grim, and also pretty accurate. How many different armies invaded and despoiled small Eastern European countries like the fictional Zubrowka of this film? How many different uniforms were worn by thugs, on trains, demanding to see passenger’s papers? And, we suspect, when those papers weren’t entirely right (by this week’s rules), those guards on the train could take Gustav outside and shoot him by the tracks.
We don’t see that, of course. We don’t view such things in polite society. We’ve invented polite society, and also politeness itself, and manners and good taste, all to hide that part of ourselves that knows that, in this world, candy asses can’t survive. Wes Anderson’s greatness as a filmmaker isn’t about how perfectly he frames every shot in his films. It’s in what that perfect framing is meant to distract us from. It’s what’s underneath.