My Journey with ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel,’ An Allusion Sustained with Marvelous Grace

Some will have argued that Wes Anderson’s 2014 ensemble comedy-drama, The Grand Budapest Hotel, rigidly, perhaps even self-consciously, maintains an assured aesthetic and identity, of which its opening sequences are symptomatic. Such lies not only in the cinematographic choices built into the direction as a structural storytelling mechanism – using differing aspect ratios to connote its varying time periods – but also in the general tone of proceedings that, to the chagrin of Anderson’s most ardently exhausted detractors, are so typically Andersonian, flooding mannered, handcrafted antiquity with varying mixtures of whimsy and pathos.

Working in reverse, we begin in the present day – or possibly late ‘80s given the dreary late-Soviet vibe – at a cemetery in Zubrowka (the film’s fictional Eastern European republic) with a beret-wearing, pin-laden hipster wandering inside with a pink book in hand, soon stopping at and gazing upon the bust of the book’s deceased and celebrated, yet unnamed author. Upon seeing the author’s biographical information and accompanying headshot, we then match cut back to 1985, when the author sits at his office bureau possibly relaying his story to a film crew.

Waxing rhapsodic about the nature of storytelling and the role of the author to the tune of erudite dialogue as manicured as any miniature yet to be seen in future wide shots, the author’s monologue is suddenly interrupted by his military school uniform-clad (?) grandson shooting a toy gun in his direction, conveying a stark, but impermanent shift in tone through jarring whip pans. Collecting himself in the aftermath of such unforeseen and childish disobedience, the author continues. His grandson reappears before the camera shortly after, standing apologetically by his side. Before the next  transition, the camera zooms in as the two look forth into it, and the child, with one hand placed on his grandfather’s shoulder, perhaps unconsciously, points his toy gun directly toward the camera.

Conversely, I was the least assured as to how I wanted to open this retrospective until a couple of paragraphs ago, because where else should one begin when explaining why a certain film – or any other piece of art, for that matter – was their favorite of a decade and has personally been the most important to them? After all, any film’s opening scene ought to lay the tonal and thematic groundwork of any given story, particularly those of a poetic persuasion, and like the film itself, the more I watch it, the more my mind is awash in thematic and tonal significance relayed by the most innocuous details of technique and mise-en-scène. Though while these things are what most stick out when rationalizing the long-term relationship I’ve one-sidedly shared with Grand Budapest, it’s equally vital recognizing the oft-superficial reasons for my more immediate romance upon the film’s wide release in spring 2014.

So, let’s get anecdotal for a bit, shall we?

I was nearly finishing up my junior year at the College of William & Mary, the first school year when I had allowed myself to more fully embrace higher-level film studies and cultural studies courses, attended by many of the same people. Naturally, Wes Anderson and his follow-up to Moonrise Kingdom, which had incidentally been exhibited at W&M’s own Global Film Festival, was a frequent topic of discussion, especially when its first trailer was released on October 17th, 2013. Talk of its style in relation to previous Anderson films was incessant, if anticipated.

“Self-parody” this, “self-parody” that; everyone felt painfully aware of what its visual panache represented as an unequivocal middle finger to those mentally fatigued by Anderson’s particular brand of indulgence. It wouldn’t take long for that realization to sink in, either, as you may recall the garish eyesore that was the deep purple of Zero (Tony Revolori) and Gustave H.’s (Ralph Fiennes) costumes standing out from the luminescent red walls surrounding them.

For what it’s worth, I was in the camp of mildly painfully irritating hipster film student snob that didn’t mind, and in fact relished in the multitude of alternating vibrant, refined and rougher set designs shown in the trailer’s two and a half minutes, so maybe I was predisposed to liking Grand Budapest before I’d even seen it in its entirety – before anyone outside of the production had a chance to see it, rather, at the 2014 Berlinale. Ornate production design and rich color palettes were also all I’d known of Anderson’s work, visually speaking, up to that point, having only seen Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom beforehand, as well – maybe I’d seen Rushmore, too, but I honestly forget. I occasionally wonder if I’d have felt as jaded as the other camp had I been acquainted with more of his catalogue, but some thoughts are less worth fussing over when you completely internalize a love for any given work.

There was additionally the mentor-pupil relationship between Zero and Gustave H., as perhaps I had longed for a similar report with any of my film professors, noticing fellow students having seemingly established such connections of their own. Of course, such particular relationship building and maintenance ought to be standard operating procedure for any student thinking about securing job or graduate school application references and/or letters of recommendation, but from some student’s perspective, there may exist a, for lack of a much more appropriate word, romantic appeal to sealing a tighter bond that transcends academia. Others may simply view such a process as necessarily political in nature, but that’s beside the point.

Then there was the brief, yet no less important subplot of Zero’s engagement with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). In the thralls of my own relationship at the time of watching the film, I guess I’d felt more vulnerable to the rose-colored embellishments (figurative and literal) of Zero and the story’s own nostalgia, in spite of their relationship as characters not containing the greatest amount of depth across the narrative’s broad span. Ironically, my own relationship would crash and burn about a couple of weeks later having only lasted a couple of months, so it wasn’t exactly the kind of doomed romance one subconsciously motivates themselves with to keep a sinking ship of a passé hotel in operation.

And there was the film’s essentially Germanic character, whether its various flourishes be names of fictional geographic locations like ‘Lutz’ and ‘Nebelsbad’ or the sprinkling of German vocabulary throughout both spoken dialogue and the mise-en-scène (Gustave H. giving the command ‘abfahren’ or ‘Kunstmuseum’ being listed as a stop on the city Lutz’s tram line). Such appealed to my previous high school education in the language and general interest in German culture and history, and the following school year at W&M, I would also take a course on the Holocaust and its representations in film and media, no doubt influencing how I’d later view its place in the pantheon of such dramas.

Perhaps that’s one of the few aspects, if only aspect that has aided in the film firming its grasp on my mind past the points of superficial context, even as its bevy of historical allusions in the most minute of singular or intertwining details rarely rise above mere surface-level. The increasing prominence of fascism, the transition from a period of noted decadence to authoritarian restraint and oppression and the Grand Budapest’s late period utilitarian architecture abound as unspoken references to Nazis, the downfall of the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Eastern Bloc, respectively, but subtler textures emerge on successive viewings – in and of itself one of the more prominent calling cards of a self- consciously detail-obsessed Wes Anderson feature.

As was previously mentioned, there is the author’s grandson’s uniform, borrowing the fascists’ color scheme for the communist government, thus broadly representing the omnipresence of European authoritarianism and its continuation and indoctrination in younger generations (and with his toy gun, the persistence of its sanctioned violence and enforced censorship). There’s also, of course, the film’s fictional re-imagining of the Nazi ‘SS’ symbol as a jaunty ‘ZZ’ representing its own fascist authorities, inconspicuously containing the ‘SS’ as a kind of historical Easter egg.

Its use during the final act, however, remains especially peculiar when implicitly addressing the uncomfortably cozy relationship between fascist governments and much of the pre-existing European establishment, combining the film’s dichotomous color palettes to form a multitude of black and pink ZZ banners adorning the Grand Budapest as if they were pastel swastikas. Perhaps most discreetly, there’s a recurring dialogue-driven motif of flowery poetry, the sort Gustave H. audibly champions by heart, often interrupted by the presence of fascist authorities, as if it were a metaphor for the abrupt censorship of art deemed unacceptable by those in power – which makes the penultimate scene of Agatha completely reciting a poem to Gustave H. and Zero all the more bittersweet, emphasis on bitter, hold the sweet.

Naturally, the latter point of historical comparison bridges nicely into the bit of plot – there’s enough going on to justify that statement – surrounding Madame D.’s surprisingly bequeathing the famed portrait “Boy with Apple” to Gustave H. as a last-minute addendum to her will, as well as the sniveling disposition Dmitri shows toward him for it. By law, or at least until the addendum’s authenticity is verified, “Boy with Apple” belongs to Gustave H., though that doesn’t stop him and Zero from thieving it almost immediately after the will is read out, should Dmitri and his family do everything in their power to stop him from possessing it.

As later plot events show, Dmitri does everything in his power to both have such an addendum discounted and eventually retrieve the painting. Observant and active viewers will no doubt recognize the political significance of a bisexual man like Gustave H. being essentially handed a lauded example of high European culture from a member of Europe’s upper economic echelon amid Dmitri’s fascist links, evoking the prevalent question mostly raised by those with fascist sympathies throughout 1930s Europe, certainly in Germany, of what culture(s) was permissible and who it belonged to, but perhaps most worth exploring is its connections with the film’s intersected themes of inheritance and storytelling.

Writer Norman L. Eisen puts it perhaps more succinctly in his Atlantic piece than I when espousing the significance of three prominent characters in the film representing “the three main populations targeted by the Nazis.” Gustave H. is bisexual, Zero “is a refugee whose family was slaughtered in their village, standing in for the Roma and other ‘non-Aryan’ ethnic minorities,” and Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) is a Jewish lawyer representing Madame D., and yet their collective importance is elevated beyond merely being a placeholder through a shared thematic connection: they relay, and in effect bequeath, the stories of others to another party. In which case, we ought to include Madame D.’s panicked French butler Serge X (Mathieu Amalric). This relaying of plot-sensitive information follows a neat chain, with its propulsive forward motion mirroring the temporal reversal the opening sequences take to bring us to the main events.

Deputy Kovacs reveals Madame D.’s final addendum to a room of shocked observers, including Gustave H.; Serge reveals to Gustave that a second copy of Madame D.’s second will dictates that everything in her possession, including the hotel, goes to him; Zero observes Gustave’s world of high-class, if conceited service and pleasantries and ultimately inherits everything upon Gustave’s untimely death; and in 1968, Zero recounts everything to Jude Law’s portrayal of the author over dinner. The author suddenly feels a renewed vigor to write, curing himself of his case of “Scribes’ Fever,” putting it all to page. And so, the story spreads to us, or more specifically the beret-wearing, pin-laden Zubrowkan hipster sitting on a cemetery bench at the film’s closing. We are her, and she is us. We are the recipients of a story others might have wished to keep hidden, but inevitably failed to do so, though they so treacherously tried.

It’s no secret that the Nazis envisioned themselves as the arbiters of European culture and identity, which forms of European artistic tradition were worthy, or how they intended to manifest consolidated power. They wished for future generations of Germanic peoples to inherit a world constructed of their own insidious mythmaking, partially done, of course, through the proliferation of propaganda and other forms of visual media, telling stories and plans of racial and ethnic purity, ideological dominance, annexation of territory for the persistence of lebensraum and of a potential Tausendjähriges Reich, or “Thousand Year Reich.”

Not only did they see themselves as the protagonists of their own fables; they saw themselves as narrators. All of which makes the fact that Dmitri and the film’s other goofy, yet no less intimidating fascists are mere background characters spending nearly the entirety of the film’s runtime chasing either the painting or the true thrust of the story, and thus its true narrators, rather than dictating its path and pacing even more subversive. Unfortunately, the aforementioned penultimate scene must dutifully remind us that control over the narrative would eventually belong to them for a time.

the grand budapest hotel 5

Dmitri has no control over who possesses a piece of artwork symbolic of a long-celebrated period in European history and culture, in spite of the pesky laws he conveniently circumvents for his own dastardly purposes. It legally belongs to a man the film’s historical parallels would deem an undesirable who, like many others, was killed for who they were along with their staunch opposition. In the end, to the chagrin of all fascists, fictional and factual, and their sympathizers, the tradition it represents is transient enough to not belong to anyone. All anyone can possess is the physical painting itself, not the ephemeral, even variable concepts attached to it.

Dmitri simply sees keeping hold of the painting as maintaining and perpetuating a false narrative as to Gustave H.’s supposedly unseemly character, and he fails. And so, one may posit that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a testament to the importance of oppressed voices, from Gustave to Zero, that any ruling power of authoritarian persuasion deemed unworthy of listening to, and that the stories they offer and we may hope to inherit should we remain attentive are the truest keys to understanding our past, for all of its explosions of sweetly nostalgic color and long, pitch dark shadows. Self-evident an observation though it may be, the role of a storyteller, therefore, is as much to listen as it is to tell, confirmed by the author’s opening monologue.

Perhaps one could additionally interpret this thematic undercurrent in a meta-contextual light, with Anderson using characters like Zero and the author as convenient avatars to continue conveying his own importance as a storyteller to those who discredit him, but that’s beside the point. It is an idealistic remembrance of an era lost in time before it was ever abandoned, echoed in the presence of its purple-suited, mustachioed and graceful concierge, whose luxurious world Zero believes “had vanished long before he ever entered it” – a truly bittersweet nod to Europe’s darker period of transition – and memory is as messy as the people who populate them.

Gustave H. may have occasionally resembled a duplicitous charlatan with his string of politically favorable romances, but he was also a true romantic at heart. His exuberant extroversion was professionally complemented by high standards with an attention for precision, but he was also internally lonely, modest given his living quarters at the hotel and possibly secretive of his past and upbringing. More to the point, “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. He was one of them.” As is his protégé, Zero.

Above all, it’s them and their partnership, as well as their accompanying performances from Fiennes and Revelori, which partially explain why this film has stuck with me as long as it has – arguably even more so than the partial thematic analysis at which I’ve just made a scattered attempt, not to discredit any of it, naturally. As thinly detailed as it may appear, I love Zero and Agatha’s relationship. I love the narrative’s ability to find cathartic humor in historical tragedy without diminishing the tragedy itself.

I love the affected dialogue, its ability to aid a shift in the tone of any scene at the drop of a dime and how it rounds out the characters, though specifically Gustave H. I love the production designs and the worlds they create, enrich and signify for the purposes of thematic gain and historical allegory. I love the sumptuous visual feast on display and the cinematography’s ability to capture a world that, ironically, feels comfortably and simultaneously artificial and tangible. I love the boundless intimacy that remains an essential focus amidst such polished spectacle reminiscent of a Jacques Tati production – with the deadpan slapstick to match.

Though most powerful and lasting of all is the singular detail revealed late in the film about Zero Moustafa’s acquiring of the Grand Budapest in its final years. Doomed and unprofitable though it may have been, he reaches an agreement with the “new government” to remain its sole proprietor, keeping it for Agatha at the possible expense of the great fortune he inherited from his predecessor. He holds on in service of a memory; certainly, an intentionally selective memory given all that he’s endured. There’s something I cling to about that, personally; that even though the relationships we forge with and attach to physical spaces are never founded upon entirely positive history, we may simply choose to neglect certain elements to sustain a fleeting emotional response and/or the illusion of marvelous, wistful reminiscence.

I like that sentiment. Not every physical space will outlive us. Eventually, the places we hold dearest may become enchanting, old ruins themselves on the brink of disappearance, yet it will never diminish the feelings they engender. We all have our Grand Budapest’s, and hopefully we’ll not only have people to share them with, but also a story or two to bequeath to attentive minds and curious hearts.

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