The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson is a director that I, alas, am not as familiar with as I should be. I am aware of his great following and the lavishing of praise that he has engendered, but have just never happened to watch one of his films. But this might be construed as a blessing, since it means I can start out my experience with his films at this point, when his accumulated respect and reputation means he can assemble a cast as stellar as it is far-ranged, and all for a film that seems only a hop, skip and jump away from the likes of Allo, Allo, going by the trailers at any rate. A combined British and German production, I was able to catch an advanced screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel courtesy of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as the film began, only fairly certain that it would be a unique experience.
A nameless author (Jude Law) recalls an encounter with Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the run down Grand Budapest Hotel of the fictional principality of Zubrowka. Over dinner, Zero narrates on his experiences of the hotel in the inter-war years, as a lobby boy under the famed concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). When one of Gustave’s many elderly paramours dies, she bequeathes him a priceless painting, incurring the enmity of her villainous son Dmitri (Adrian Brody) and his murderous henchmen Jopling (Willem Dafoe). With the help of the younger Zero (Tony Revolori) and the lobby boy’s lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Gustave faces tightly wound servants, persecuted lawyers and a relentless police inspector in his quest to retain the painting, his freedom and his life.
More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from this point on. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to the Write Club.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is, first and foremost, a comedy film and in that it succeeds rather wonderfully. It’s full of wit and nuance combined seamlessly with the more garish and profane to produce something that feels at once straight out of the Marx Brothers playbook and at the same time not unlike Inglorious Basterds’ moments of levity – an extreme comparison I suppose, but one which I fell is perfectly apt. There is the very real feeling that you are watching a modern take on a very old concept, that the director has reached into a past age of cinema for inspiration and simply applied some modern camera techniques – and colour – to bring it into the 21st century. Some of the jokes carry a modern twang as well, but it cannot be denied that watching The Grand Budapest Hotel makes the viewer feel as if he is watching something that could have been made a very long time ago, one of those Chaplin-type films, like The Great Dictator, that matches slapstick with seriousness, but never at the overall expense of either. Such a take, and such a merger of the old and new, certainly makes The Grand Budapest Hotel unique, the kind of cinema going experience I cannot say to have really enjoyed before, although if this is a success I might get more of an opportunity in the future. The humour has many levels, but it just about all works.
But it also carries that certain sombreness and melancholy to it throughout, perhaps not surprising given its inspiration in the writings of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who took his own life in 1942 in the face of Nazism advancement, despairing in an exile in Brazil. I’ll get into it more in a bit, but The Grand Budapest Hotel mixes its laughs with a real sense of deterioration in its background, as if everything that Gustave and Zero get up to is just a thin veneer, a shallow pool hiding the much at the bottom, which finally cannot be concealed anymore at the conclusion. I am not intimately familiar with Zweig’s work, but it only takes a cursory study into his life experiences to understand the effect that he had on Anderson’s approach – The Grand Budapest Hotel is a bohemian, artistic and at many times beautiful tale, but it cannot cover up the darkness innate within the story it is trying to tell. It embraces that sadness by the conclusion, a decision, not in line with the sort of old-style inspiration, which forgoes happy endings in favour of something much deeper and, ultimately, something that will stick in the mind more.
Of course, that might make The Grand Budapest Hotel sound overly serious and a slog, but it is not. While it encompasses many themes and ideas, and its pace changes frequently, it is certainly never boring, having a captivating plot to go along with its more singular elements, one that I felt was dictated perfectly. The narrative is crisp and enjoyable, a five part structure that almost makes you feel as if you are reading along with the girl in the cemetery from the beginning, but losing nothing for the visual format. In Gustave and Zero you have a fantastic duo to keep things driving along from set-piece to set-piece, with every part having a clear place in the overall structure, more of the plot to advance and more things to say. Whether it is Zero’s elderly introduction being used to frame the entire thing as a recitation of treasured memories, a look at the stylistic denial of the collapse of civilisation in the opening 20 minutes, Gustave’s unique individualism driving him on against dark-clad establishment figures later on or the full circle/realist nature of the conclusion, there was never any point when I wasn’t entranced by the story that The Grand Budapest Hotel was telling, with each change of plot pacing and tonal shift being measured to perfection. Whirlwind romance turns to prison escapes turns to mountain top chases turns to gunfight, and all with a perfect sense of timing and placement.
That general structure is framed around four different timelines, the first three of which look back towards the fourth, viewing the 1930s as an era of grace, adventure and colour, far more than the drabber decor and boring straightforwardness of subsequent decades. This is summed up wonderfully in how the titular hotel changes its appearance through the years, run down, understaffed and dull when the elder Zero meets “the author”, only to explode in colour and vivid details when we see it in the 1930s, a clever technique to really illustrate one of the central themes of decay. The jumping back and forth between some of those timelines is never jarring or unlooked for, with Anderson skilfully giving us the right amount of glimpses of Zero’s dinner with the author in-between the lighter sections in the 1930’s, enough to remind us of the basic structure and how this tale is a recitation of events long past. The final shots, returning once more to that modern graveyard, remind us that even those sections of the 1960’s are a time long past, imbuing the whole production with this great sense of grandeur and quiet respect for those gone before.
The Grand Budapest Hotel almost seems to take on the form of a symbolic history of its fictional principality, which seems to be a representation of any one of the eastern European states that found themselves caught between Nazism and communism in the inter-war years. The opening seems to be a modern one, as a girl reads inside a simple cemetery, looking back into the good and not so good aspects of her nations past from a point where it is discovering its beauty once more. Then, a brief skip back, as the older author, in stuffy, closed surroundings, indicative of the later stages of totalitarianism perhaps, tells the first part of his story. Then further back, to the 1960’s, as Jude Law’s author wanders around the basic, uninspiring setting of the Grand Budapest, in the throes of a mundanity that only dictatorship and repression can bring, which anyone of repute and note is trying to escape, something that the author himself eventually comes to do. Finally then, it is to the origin, the time before the darkness, as we see Zubrowka and the Grand Budapest in its mythical age, before jackboots, war and ruination largely destroyed both of them.
The purpose of this kind of structure is clear. The audience is sucked in early with the thought of this mysterious older man relaying his story, and the knowledge of everything that is to come imbues that vital sense of melancholy and approaching disaster right from the off. Anderson clearly wanted his audience to laugh, but not so much that they would ever forget what was coming, though he saves the really serious stuff for nearer the ending. But in framing his film this way, with these four glimpses of Zubrowka at different times, he manages to make the fictional principality a little bit more than a setting, but a sort of character as well, one that suffers, changes and displays the marks of all that has happened to it, much as Gustave and Zero do. I loved the way that Zubrowka was portrayed, and how such a portrayal wove itself into the very essence of the story.
That’s all in style though, something The Grand Budapest Hotel has multitudes of. It also has firm substance, with a plot and an narrative that retains an enjoyable coherence at all times, even as it sucks in more and more characters, growing complex even after a prison break, the introduction of secret societies and death scenes straight out of the mind of Alfred Hitchcock. At no point could I say that The Grand Budapest Hotel was becoming convoluted, or hard to understand. There are wacky hi-jinks and some short, pulsing sub-plots (like Jopling going after Jeff Goldblum’s Lawyer for example) but they all serve the larger story which is a remarkably simple one of mentor and pupil out to learn off each other and make themselves rich. The entire affair has a really palpable sense of energy to it, aided by the succession of whip smart jokes and sequences, which take on a variety of comedic types, from puns to the physical. The jokes keep you engaged, coming as they do in so many different ways, but the plot is not that of a dumb comedy – you become invested in the fate of Gustave H and Zero very early on, and of the people around them. Seeing the elderly Zero first was important for that – creating that sense of mystery and a story untold – but the characterisation of the younger Zero and Gustave took that baton and ran the distance as well. Sure, Gustave is almost ludicrous in the way that he is so delightfully mannered while also being shockingly profane, but that was all part of the charm, this dichotomy that actually made him seem just a bit more real, and not just the cartoon character he could easily have been. The same can be said for Zero, whose character starts as a dutiful servant but actually grows and comes out of his shell in a believable way, first because he becomes more familiar with Gustave over time, and then second because he gains the confidence of a man in love.
The journey of those two characters and the bond between them is the central point of The Grand Budapest Hotel, with all other things, including the pan-20th century narrative, forming around it. The relationship between Gustave and Zero is incredibly well executed, a parody of master/pupil stories even while it comes to encapsulate some of the best aspects of such plot lines. Their adventures are extreme and fanciful, yet capture the imagination in a way that seems hard to believe before you actually sit down to watch the film.
Watching their relationship grow beyond that of just pupil and teacher, as Gustave begins to confide in his young charge, as Zero begins to loosen up and talk back a bit, as the two become willing to trust the other with their lives and their freedom, was great to watch. Starting with the death of “Madame D”, Gustave comes to rely on Zero to a greater extent, and becomes the real hero of the piece when he defends the lobby boy from a police inspection. This defines Gustave as the one decent man left standing in Zubrowka very early on, and the whole point of his characterisation was to re-emphasise this over and over again, as he only loses his mannerly bearing at the most desperate moments, especially at his own, tragic conclusion. Gustave is a man set in his ways but at the wrong point in history, and this gets him killed by the end. But seeing him ride out this wave of incivility, barbarism and unjust persecution, and still retain that sense of charm, stiff-upper lip and camaraderie almost makes it worth it. Certainly, it is easy to see why Gustave is so drawn to Zero, as taking the young man under his wing is simply the right thing to do, and there are obvious similarities between them. Neither Gustave nor Zero could be the characters that they are without the influence of the other.
Zero see’s in Gustave a chance for riches, but has already been drawn in to this bizarre man’s world beforehand. Zero is, at the beginning, impressionable, desperate and more than a little lonely. With Gustave there is an opportunity for some colour, adventure and redemption for some past failings with his own family. Zero wants’ to be Gustave, to fulfil that role. By the end of the young Zero’s time on screen he’s found a wife and great wealth, but it all gets taken away from him: the elder Zero, a strange reclusive millionaire is what remains, someone who retains some pride and fond memories but has allowed subsequent misery to leave him largely trapped in their remembrance. This has a depressing ring to it, but ties into the previous points on The Grand Budapest Hotel being a sort of visual history of Zubrowka, with the elder Zero being its historian, keeping alive a flame for a better time long gone. Zero’s journey is to become that person, lobby boy to the personification of an entire age.
It is the kind of relationship that will surprise the viewer with how deep and keenly felt it becomes, beyond a simple comedic back and forth – by the more maudlin scenes of the finale, the audience will surely feel genuinely touched by Zero’s words on his former mentor. This is seen most clearly as Zero sorrowfully tells the author of Gustave’s death, something that occurs “off-screen”, a memory too painful to elaborate on, but whose effect on Zero needs to words to explain. The audience will feel that pain too, both for the death of this extraordinary man, and the miserably frustrating manner in which he dies, gunned down by the goons of a new fascistic order.
The dark tone to the entire thing might have some grimacing at the humour that is ferreted out, but I cannot count myself amongst them, with even random moments of violence – like Jopling throwing Kovacs’ cat out a window – eliciting chuckles at the sheer brazenness of it. The characters are all so vivid in their extremes, from Fiennes’ delightfully mannered Gustave to the vampirish Jopling of Dafoe, not unlike the sort of things you would see in some parodies of the era – hence my earlier comparison to Allo, Allo. The Grand Budapest Hotel has plenty of similarities, from the similar setting, characters and a plot based around smuggling artwork. There is much of Rene in Gustave, both having that same wit, inconceivable success with the opposite sex and a certain aloofness with everything around them, even a war. But The Grand Budapest Hotel exceeds its vulgar compatriot through some of its more pristine elements, though I will admit that the overall comparison might be just a little bit unfair – Allo, Allo never had the production values that Wes Anderson enjoys.
Before I lose the run of myself on the praise, it behoves me to mention some flaws. At a certain point, around the time Bill Murray shows up with his secret society of concierges, the long line of celebrity cast members become more distracting than anything. By that I mean that their casting becomes just another joke, not done so that the actor can bring something to the film, but just so the audience can notice them and be briefly amazed. Bill Murray, Tom Wilkinson and Owen Wilson are some examples, all decent actors (at the very least) whose impact on The Grand Budapest Hotel is decidedly limited. I’ve never been a huge fan of that kind of thing.
More seriously I felt that not enough was done with Adrian Brody’s antagonist, a gauche boor embodying some of the nastier aspects of the coming fascism. His scenes were altogether great, and he provided a great contrast with Gustave – one mostly civil with a hint of the profane, another mostly profane with the bar minimum of civility. But, there are only so many of them, and Brody’s part gets lost among the myriad of other cast members, with Dafoe’s henchman having a larger impact on the plot really. Dafoe is fine, but I think I would preferred a bit more time being given to Brody, whose character interested me just a bit more, his more subtle viciousness, his connection to the larger idea of growing fascism and his direct opposition to Gustave.
The ending might seem like a bit too much for an audience that has spent most of the previous 90 minutes laughing, but I do not count myself among them. Agatha dies off screen giving birth to Zero’s child, the real end of his time of happiness, something he mentions to the author almost offhand. Is was a startlingly turn of mood, but a very effective one, reminding the audience that such happiness can always be fleeting, and that the occasionally whimsical nature of life can be undone very quickly. In that way, having such a thing only be mentioned as opposed to shown makes it more effective as a plot tool: it turns The Grand Budapest Hotel into a sort of fantastical dream, that Zero, Agatha and the audience have to suddenly wake up from, much like the inter-war years were torn apart by the conflict coming after.
That comes before the death of Gustave of course. The scene is deliberately mirrored to one earlier: Zero is accosted by a papers inspector, and Gustave tries to convince the man to leave his lobby boy alone with sweet persuasions and threats. The first time, Edward Norton’s inspector arrives to save the day, repaying Gustave for some previous kindness. The second time there is no such intervention, and Gustave, knowing nothing else he can do, leaps into a fray to try and save his friend, who has become far more than just another employee. He’s also striking a blow against fascism, a tiny, almost immeasurable one. It’s the last thing he can do. Zero quietly tells the author that Gustave was shot dead, a man who was born after his time had ended. It’s a remarkably sad way to end such an otherwise funny tale. Some might find it unpalatable. But it certainly makes a larger connection with the audience possible. Anderson makes us like and care for these characters and their happiness, and then takes it away in an instant, victims of an arbitrary cruelty, that is at once fascistic but also just the world as it is. The Grand Budapest Hotel is still funny, but the ending is the best example of how it manages to include a great deal of seriousness in its narrative. It’s a shock, but isn’t really that surprising upon reflection – The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like a film, throughout its running time, whose characters are only barely avoiding disaster, and they can’t avoid it forever.
I suppose that The Grand Budapest Hotel has a few issues with finality then – the 1930’s plot line ends on this sudden dark note, and the ultimate fate of the older Zero is not discussed in any detail. Instead, Anderson gives the final words to the author, irrevocably moved by Zero’s tale, but who departs from the depressing surrounds of Zubrowka, and never see’s the Grand Budapest again, final moments that are probably a dedication to Zweig and his absence from his homeland, and a good one at that. Anderson forgoes a traditional ending, but his chosen finale was not one that I disliked: on the contrary, I enjoyed it immensely, as it was the kind of ending that fit this kind of film very well.
A customary word on female characters. The Grand Budapest Hotel only really has two of note – Tilda Swinton’s Madame D and Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha. Madame D is mostly a parody of those kind of elderly widows so susceptible to seduction in fiction. She exists mostly as someone for the audience (and Zero) to be puzzled over, vis a vis her relationship with Gustave, who casually announces “I’ve had older” to a disbelieving lobby boy.
It’s with Ronan that women are properly represented. Her Agatha is an unbearably sweet character, working in a bakery and proving a suitable counterpart for the more serious Zero. She also has a great chemistry as a character with Gustave, with playful flirting enraging a suspicious Zero on occasion. Her Mexican shaped birthmark is a bizarre but ultimately pointless character trait, a weird red herring that makes her more memorable but whose deeper significance eludes me if it exists at all. She aids Zero in the latter schemes and provides the resolution over the painting plot, facing down the threatening Dmitri in the Grand Budapest itself and surviving. Anderson takes his time in introducing Agatha, cleverly making this plot decision a part of the older Zero’s recitation – a painful memory, due to her untimely demise – but she has a very significant impact when she does appear.
The romantic sub-plot with Zero is brief but well executed, the two cavorting in a very uncivilised manner behind peoples back, which gives the story a nice dose of youthful exuberance when it might otherwise be said to be dominated by older, more serious character. That courtship, brief as it is, contains some moving scenes that make the viewer feel something for Agatha, not least the two enjoying carnival rides or their actual wedding. That’s enough to make us feel rather heartbroken when Agatha dies. While the cast is utterly dominated by men, the character of Agatha at least stands up with the best of them, becoming a key part of an unlikely painting stealing trinity with Gustave and Zero.
For a final word on the plot, I would say that The Grand Budapest Hotel successfully treads a line so fine so that it defies a basic categorisation when it comes to genre. It’s a comedy, but one that’s mixing elements of humour from another age and from the modern world. It’s a serious examination of how fascism came to infect so many places with darkness. It’s a friendship and love story and a melancholy retrospective for an entire (fictional) nation. The Grand Budapest Hotel is all of these things, making it some sort of comedy/drama/buddy/arthouse amalgamation, and where it could so easily have turned into a complete mess, in the hands of Wes Anderson it has become a plot-driven and narratively enjoyable wonder. But The Grand Budapest Hotel has many other fantastic elements going for it beyond the realm of story that deserve some examination as well.
The cast is so immense and accomplished that I could spend the whole review talking about them, but I will endeavour to limit myself. Ralph Fiennes is really impressive as the garish, loud and utterly charming Gustave, bouncing between being a Lothario for rich elderly blondes and being a mentor for Zero, never losing a certain seriousness at the core of his demeanour. There is an ever present warmth in this character, something Fiennes plays to a tee, whether it is in his holier-than-thou attitude to the concierge business, which always seems to have a hint of self parody, or in his occasional breakaways from this, the odd curse word or irritated rant. Fiennes is a delight whenever Gustave is being cool, calm and collected (“I thought I was a faggot?” comes to my mind) or in his more desperate moments, such as in the final encounter with Jopling. Sometimes it’s just the simplicity of the straight delivery (“I go to bed with all my friends”), given without the slightest hint of realising the comedy in what the character is saying, that makes Fiennes’ performance great.
Fiennes was called upon to play a man who was living outside of the right time, bringing impeccable manners and service in an age where such things were rapidly disappearing from view, and I think that he does that, while still allowing Gustave enough character to be something more. At the start you would not think he is any kind of hero really, but by the end it is easy, through Fiennes’ wonderful diction and delivery, to believe in a man who would throw himself upon the firing squads to save a friend. His comic timing is brilliant and his ability to convey emotion and depth of feeling in a glance or just a few words is similarly of the very highest standard (Gustave H would approve you would imagine).
Both Tony Revolori and F. Murray Abraham are great as Zero at different ages. The first, in his first feature role, has a powerful sense of youthful enthusiasm, playing off Ralph Fiennes wonderfully throughout. His Zero is the more energetic, rapid talking sort, whose entire comedic job is mostly to set things up for Gustave, but who quickly gets a much larger chance to shine of his own accord, in scenes with Saoirse Ronan or with Fiennes late on, when Zero is becoming, more and more, the dominant partner. Revolori is such an odd one for a film of this type, so young and so ethnic for such a role of an eastern European hotel lobby boy, but that kind of odd feeling is part of what makes him so perfect for the role, whether it’s the drawn on moustache or the repeated insistence that Gustave stop flirting with Agatha. Since he’s basically playing a happier memory, we can praise Revolori for the sense of joy and happiness in adventure that he brings to the Zero role.
It is for the elder Zero to counter-balance this, with a patented portrayal of grief stricken memories. Abraham’s time is short but he does wonderfully with what he has, never making us doubt that he is playing the same character as Revolori even though he has changed greatly in the time in-between. While Revolori is about the more boundless, enthusiastic delivery, Abraham is far more reserved, suitable for the older gentlemen, and his best moments are of the quiet, mournful kind.
Saoirse Ronan is really warm and enchanting as Agatha, in an understated role that utilised her ever present loveliness in a magnetic way. She too is a “straight man” to the wackiness engulfing her life, perhaps more of a straight one than Zero himself. She plays Agatha with this sort of aching sweetness, one that makes her death announcement all the more tragic. She does most of that without words, but captures such an essence in courtship scenes between her and Zero, or in the clipped responses she gives the likes of Gustave and Dmitri. Ronan is a fine actress, destined for even bigger things I don’t doubt, and her role in The Grand Budapest Hotel gave her a great chance to show off her comedic ability as well as her more traditional strengths. She took that chance and did wonderfully.
Adrian Brody is suitably off the hook as the moustache twirling bad guy Dmitri, who spits foul insults and generally seems to always be just a hairs breath away from going on another rant. Brody was clearly loving such an over the top roll, so it’s a shame that his role as the antagonist is really reduced to just about two or three scenes, though he was brilliant in all of them.
He is outdone in screentime by the imminently threatening Dafoe, whose Jopling manages to be equal parts vampirish and Republic style villain. He doesn’t get to say much, but you cannot but be unnerved by the kind of character this is, who brutally murders victims even while setting up jokes for others. Dafoe captures that kind of intensity very well I suppose, but I think it is safe to say it isn’t the most difficult role he has ever had to play.
Remarkably, Anderson somehow found the time to make the most of the rest even with the limited time he had to work with. Matthew Amalric was entertaining as a slightly unhinged butler hiding a deadly secret. Jeff Goldblum’s Kovacs has some great scenes (and one of the best lines) up to and including his demise at the hands of Jopling. Tilda Swinton as Gustave’s deceased lover (under an impressive make-up job) was great, leaving no real hint as to who it actually was under all of the paint. Harvey Keitel as a prison break excelled, given just enough time to be more than just a pointless cameo. Jude Law narrates the opening and closing in a suitably gut wrenching fashion, encapsulating the best aspects of Zweig’s style and making “the author” someone with a bit of substance.
If there are a few disappointments, it’s the likes of Ed Norton, who isn’t trying too hard as the police inspector set on tracking Gustave down, looking for all the world as if he is just happy to be involved. The rather meaningless, and aforementioned appearances of Bill Murray, Tom Wilkinson and Owen Wilson also rankle just a little bit, simply because they are more deserving than the brevity their roles were assigned.
Visually, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an entrancing production, in every period costume, every opulent surrounding of the German locales and even in every look at the grim facade of the older hotel. Every scene and set gets its due attention, and even the drabness of the later Grand Budapest has to be seen as a triumph, making it suitably different from the original without making it an entirely new location. The Gothic aspect of Zubrowka is captured very well in a succession of brilliant sequences, like the Jopling/Kovacs waltz through a museum, or Gustave and Zero’s journey to the top of a mountain. A symphony of colour, hard and soft, awaits the viewer at every turn, often used to mark itself out in a scene, with things like the bakery boxes in the prison or the “Boy With Apple” painting in Madame D’s otherwise drab and morose looking home.
There are so many excellent little details in every other shot that I cannot possibly attempt to recall them all here, and can only praise the director for the effort he put in at bringing this vision to life. Every scene has that added dimension to it. Nothing feels cheap, the sort of complaint that is oh so easily levelled at a production of this nature when directors and productions teams half-ass it. But whether it is stunning Grand Budapest itself, or the several train sequences or even Agatha’s bakery, Anderson has made sure that no second of camerawork is without the little details and complexity that is required: bells and whistles on the hotel, the artwork of the Madame D household, even the intricately designed statue of the author at the very beginning, decorated in hotel room keys. The costuming and make-up departments too deserve a great deal of praise, having done some sterling work to turn this cast into amalgams of the inter-war years, not least the likes of Norton or Dafoe. They may not be entirely accurate in an historical sense, but they really don’t have to be. They match the most vivid type of imaging for the period, which is enough for a film of this nature.
As many have noted, Anderson choose to shoot his film in several different aspect rations, one for every timeline, just to mark it out even more differently than the others. Such a thing was not really necessary, but adds to the distinctiveness of each section I suppose, as does the wonderfully colourful “part” cards, which almost make you think you are a reading a book instead of watching a film. Anderson’s camerawork is rock-steady and very personal, constantly going up close so that actors faces are all that’s in screen, with a particular favourite being a standard portrait shot, used with quick cuts between two characters to show a conversation at several stages. This sort of technique is very simple, but allows for the viewer to remain focused on the actors, with only the more curious perhaps noticing everything else going on around them.
Excellent set-piece sequences on the visual front include a ski-chase in the last act straight out of the sepia-era of movie-making, the Kovacs murder that could easily have been directed by Hitchcock at his peak and several 2D painted backgrounds that excel in creating the right kind of atmosphere, a sort of a fairy-tale ambiance combined with a feel for the old school style of film-making. Those briefly mentioned moments of action are well positioned and paced, with Anderson knowing when to limit himself on such things, The Grand Budapest Hotel not being an action story by any stretch: the closing gun battle is played almost entirely for laughs, with everyone blazing away and being unable to actually hit anybody.
Anderson’s script jumps off the screen in every witty moment, every joke and every finely timed curse word. The humour is wide-ranging and completely accessible: even in the grimmest scene of bodily harm the audience will find something to laugh about and some fears of mine that I would become lost in Anderson’s absurdist leanings were completely unfounded. Anybody can enjoy this kind of thing. Gustave casually remarking that somebody he “beat the shit out of“ in prison is now a “dear friend” in the same breath. Informing the dead body of Madame D that “he wants some” of whatever cream they’ve put on her corpse to beautify it. The terse, clipped exchanges between Gustave and Zero when under pressure (“You know the drill, zip it!”). Gustave religiously determined manner of lecturing his staff over breakfast. The awful, awful poetry. And, perhaps my favourite, Jopling casually throwing Kovacs’ cat out a window (“Did…did he just kill my cat?”). Those are a slim selection of some of The Grand Budapest Hotel’s constant string of verbal jokes. The Grand Budapest Hotel succeeds in simple visual humour as well (like the sight of Jopling “disguised” as a monk). I can’t really think of any comedic moment that failed to land, all of it times and delivered just about flawlessly.
In terms of wordplay, it is also worth noting that if The Wolf Of Wall Street was an example of profanity being overused to the point of numbness, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an example of its immense comedic potential when used in just the right amount, usually as Fiennes’ Gustave loses his cool, before going right back to reciting his awful poetry. His recitation of something akin to “Once more unto the breach” as Jopling is about to kill him, only to rejoice, foul-mouthed, when Zero saved him, was one of the film’s most hilarious moments, not just for the obviousness of it, but just because it is wonderful contrast between grim resolve for death and unbearable joy.
But when things get serious, the script is there to back things up. The older Zero’s narration, combined with the opening and closing monologues from Jude Law’s author, are suitably moving and emotive, never dallying with the wrong kind of comedic spark if it would never work with the maudlin and the drama. Gustave’s proclamations on the ending of his era, and a later retrospective of his life summing up that he was a man born after his own time had ended are the kind of stern examples of what kind of appropriately stoic wordplay Anderson can bring to the screen. There are moments, such as in Gustave’s appeals/threats to immigration officials, when it seems that Anderson is making a point about the power of words, and how they are becoming less and less effective in the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel – they work the first time but not the second – and this ties into the larger quality of the script throughout.
A score from Alexandre Desplat completes the entire experience, calling back to some of the greats of a bygone era, imbuing the production with as much magic and majesty as it needs. It’s a varied enough score, with a nice selection ethnic fiddles tunes for example, which fits the surroundings nicely.
So, let’s talk themes. The largest and most obvious, perhaps the entire point of the production, is a theme of the collapse of civilisation, something that Gustave comes back to time and again. His whole life of civility at the Grand Budapest, is making sure that the guests are well taken care of and that as little notice as possible is taken of the actual staff. His is a world of romance, fine dining and excellent conversation, even splitting a bottle of excellent wine on the train trip to see his dead lover. Zero is captivated by this kind of world, and pursues Agatha, to an extent, the old fashioned way.
But there are numerous signs that it’s all coming apart. The story of The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place against a backdrop of an impending war, one that is turning Zubrowka into a totalitarian police state. Gone will be the beautiful colours that Gustave wears, replaced by black uniforms and armbands. Gustave winds up in a filthy prison, but does his best to engage in friendships and accumulate the little luxuries – like cakes from Agatha’s bakery – just trying to put the right sheen on things. His overall goal is just to become rich and prosperous on the back of the masterpiece he has been bequeathed, and even the kind of adventure he gets into seems more at home in the realms of Victorian adventure than the kind of scrappy surrounds that inter-war Europe enjoys. It is a gentleman’s adventure in other words, involving art, skiing and fraternal affection. That kind of appearance matches the appearances that Gustave and Zero try to maintain in their employment, and in their dealings with people – the finale of the adventure is a will being read out after all. But appearances can only last so long.
Doing somebody a favour and getting paid back is a key part of Gustave’s world, reciprocity being the very basics of civility, but even that is vanishing fast, and the failure of this system is the death of Gustave himself. The new jackboot wearing thugs, epitomised by Dmitri and his lack of colour (or social graces) are the power in the world now. The lights are going out all across Europe, and the dim shine of the Grand Budapest is one of the last to be extinguished. Gustave cannot operate in that kind of world. It’s too barbaric, too hateful, with no opportunity for romance, adventure or just plain good manners. So, he goes down taking a swing at the new order, a failing one, but we can agree with Zero’s sentiment that Gustave was a man out of his time – fascist dominated Europe would not have suited him, much as it did not suit Zweig. Civilisation does come around again – the existence of the author and his prized literature in Zubrowka is evidence of that, as is the girl reading about the story in the modern graveyard, hopefully in a better world.
A second major theme is that of mentors and mentorship. Zero looks back fondly on his life at the Grand Budapest, as a better time where his fortunes were inexorably linked with those of Gustave. Gustave, a lobby boy of some repute himself (or so he hilariously claims) takes Zero under his wing. He must see something of himself in the young man, perhaps in his sense of isolation and simply the need for friendship, perhaps akin to a desire for a father figure. Gustave proceeds to guide Zero through the finer points of being a concierge, but that is just preamble to a more madcap adventure.
Such mentorship is at the heart of this relationship which is at the heart of The Grand Budapest Hotel. All of the action and drama is driven by this bond and the connection between the two is plain to see. Gustave comes very quickly to see Zero as more than just a lobby boy, but as a partner and a friend, just as Zero comes to see Gustave as more than just an employer. Such mentorship and camaraderie does not exists elsewhere in the film, not between Dmitri or Joping for example, two monsters thrown together and feeding off of each other’s evil. Mentorship is about teaching, and Gustave leaves Zero with so many lessons: civility, ingenuity, affection and above all else perhaps, a certain brand of courage, the kind that requires you – demands of you even – to stand up for a friends safety and freedom even at the potential cost of your own life. Zero takes that message and lesson with him, one of the last ones that Gustave teaches him, and remains a better man for it, even many decades later, when he tries to pass a little bit of it on to the author.
That brings me to the last theme I will discuss, that of memories. The entirety of The Grand Budapest Hotel is framed around a series of look backs. The author looks back to his discussion with Zero and Zero looks back to his time at the Grand Budapest. Such a narrative frame breeds suspicion and inconsistency, and could easily explain why some of the details seem so fantastical: the elderly Zero could well be an unreliable narrator. His description of his adventure seems very fairy tale-like at times, full of over the top characters and events. He openly acknowledges that such times were the high point of his life, not just because of Gustave but because of Agatha as well. Such declarations mean he might well be colouring in his memories just a tad, making them seem brighter and more lurid than they actually were. The characters are more extreme, the bad guys more evil than they perhaps should be – there are very few sympathetic details behind Dmitri and Jopling for example. This indicates a simplistic viewpoint, one that suits a film that is calling back to the old style genres that depicted this period, but also indicates that memories are untrustworthy.
After all, it is only at the end of his tale, as his recitation to the author reaches a conclusion, that the darkness overtakes the story, with the deaths of Agatha and Gustave coming very close together, two memories that he is not so comfortable in discussing, hence a real lack of detail. The Grand Budapest Hotel then portrays memories as very finicky and tricky things, which should not be considered cast iron sources: they can spin a very memorable tale, but over time it is only natural that we should think better of some previous high points, even if they came with a great degree of grime. Similarly, we dismiss the bad moments, and do not dwell on them too much. Zero’s narration is a commentary on the typical state of human memory then.
But it is still a tale worthy of hearing. The Grand Budapest Hotel makes one thing perfectly clear, which is that memories are important. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a history of this nation through four different moments in time, but all of it comes from the words and writing of people who were at previous moments in time. Zero’s account of his time in the inter war years is a little bit of Zubrowkan history, and of the many people he encountered and events he witnessed. He is a walking repository of history then, and his gift to the author is to make him such a guardian of knowledge and the author attempts to pass it on to further generations himself. The older author makes such a point, informing his audience that writers rarely just invent their stories and characters completely from the recesses of their imagination. No, they are given to them by others and from the things that they encounter – they carry the memories of those that have gone before, the good times, the bad times. They carry their prejudice too, so it might not be the most accurate history. But it still makes for a great story, with some very important things to teach us.
Moving towards a conclusion, I must say that it’s is a little difficult to put The Grand Budapest Hotel’s effect in to words. It’s a touchingly emotional affair, which leaves the viewer both satisfied and immensely reflective upon its conclusion, about our own place in history, about the effect that our experiences will have on us and our ancestors, and on the nature of friendship. It has some characters you care deeply for all wrapped up in a film structure and narrative that seems at all times to be both old and new. There are some minor gripes of course, but they are of a mostly surface level nature, and easily forgiven. The Grand Budapest Hotel looks good, sounds good and reads good.
Ultimately, I’m struggling to think of another film that so brilliantly managed to create symmetry between two such extremes of comedy and bleakness, and yet did not have one ruin the others effect. I believe that Wes Anderson, with his wonderful directorial eye and incredible cast have put together a masterpiece that is both a suitable remembrance of its inspiration and one of the funniest films of recent times.
(All images are copyright of Fox Searchlight Pictures).