Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the lavish Grand Budapest Hotel, a castle-like structure that sits among mountain tops in the far eastern edges of pre-war Europe, travels with his protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) to attend the reading of the last will and testament of one Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a pruney old patron of the hotel, and one of Gustave’s many lovers.
En route via train, Gustave leisurely sips a glass of liquor and talks frankly about the pleasures to be had with older women. The train is stopped and a menacing group of gray-suited soldiers enters their car to check passports. Gustave is charming and accommodating, handing over a crisp, clean piece of identification. Zero is quiet and anxious—his own identification is worn out and torn. The soldiers become suspicious and ask Zero to step off the train, at which point Gustave shouts, “You can’t arrest him just because he’s a bloody immigrant.”
They would have, if not for a personal connection between Gustave and a commanding officer (Edward Norton) that saves Zero in the nick of time. As it turns out, Gustave had treated the officer gently when he was a boy staying at The Grand Budapest. The officer had remembered. Later in the film, the same scene plays out again. But this time the soldiers’ suits have turned from gray to black and their faces have lost their familiarity, as their politics have turned to such that cares nothing of the individual, or of history. Both scenes represent a recurring, though subtle theme of Wes Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel—no matter how distant the political realities of a day and age may seem, they inevitably find a way to affect the lives of individuals in intimate ways.
I’m thinking now of the woman I love. This may seem like a strange transition, and an even stranger sentence to read in a film review, but I’ll explain. She is from Ukraine, a country that has known how quickly and severely politics can alter lives, and may be learning the same lesson again. She was born in Vinnitsa, a large city in central Ukraine that served as the backdrop for one of the Holocaust’s most horrific scenes. In just a few September days in 1941, every Jew in Vinnitsa and the surrounding area—28,000 human beings in total—was executed. The last moments in the life of one were captured in this powerful photograph.
This woman also has family in Kyiv, where she grew up, and since protests began in November we have followed each day’s developments. I can’t speak for her, though she has tried to explain to me the unique feeling she has of watching ancient streets that she walked on—formed memories on—being torn up so protesters could use the old stones as defense against police bullets. When ousted President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, it became clear, to me at least, that all bets were off. Suddenly, the lives and futures of Ukrainians are now in the hands of others. And by others I mean governments. Russian, American, to some extent Ukrainian, and how political tides will move.
The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, to whom Anderson dedicates The Grand Budapest Hotel, felt his own fate being gripped by politics too. In his lifetime, Zweig was one of the most well-known and best-selling authors in Europe. When the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Zweig fled Austria for London, thinking it safe from their reach. When Germany advanced over Europe, Zweig found himself across the Atlantic with his new wife, first in New York City, then settling finally in Petropolis, Brazil, where the couple committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates in 1942.
After seeing Anderson’s film, I found a used copy of Zweig’s only novel, Beware of Pity. On the back cover it says that Zweig killed himself while “despairing of the future in a world seemingly sinking into endless totalitarian night.”
The closing of the borders was, for him, one of the first signs of the enveloping darkness. Beware of Pity was banned (along with the rest of his writing) by the Nazis in 1939, but in the novel he describes the feeling of the days as the world moved closer and closer to war:
Future historians of our epoch will one day record that in the year 1937 almost every conversation in every country of this distracted Europe of ours was dominated by speculation as to the probability or improbability of a new world war. Wherever people met, this theme exercised an irresistible fascination, and one sometimes had a feeling that it was not the people themselves who were working off their fears in conjectures and hopes, but, so to speak, the very air, the storm-laden atmosphere of the times, which, charged with latent suspense, was endeavoring to unburden itself in speech.
In conversation with George Prochnik for the London Telegraph, Wes Anderson admitted that it was Zweig’s Beware of Pity—a used copy like the one I found—that provided the initial spark for The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it was an amalgamation of Zweig’s writings and biography that gave form to the story.
As mentioned, the film begins with the mysterious death of Madame D., who leaves her lover Gustave H. the priceless painting, “Boy With Apple.” When it is discovered that Madame D. was murdered, Gustave is accused and locked away in the most maximum of maximum security prisons, out in a no-man’s land of frozen countryside. The story unfolds, with Zero and Gustave attempting to retrieve the painting and solve the murder.
Within this mystery-adventure story Anderson finds a way to exhibit his signature style, with new and thought-provoking results. So many of Anderson’s films take place in confined spaces. The toys he uses in his sets are symbolic of the miniature worlds his characters inhabit. The Royal Tenenbaums exists essentially within the Tenenbaum household. Moonrise Kingdom never ventures off of tiny New Penzance. Even in The Darjeeling Limited, although the characters travel to India, all of the action and emotion is locked within the relationship between the three brothers. When they interact with the wider world around them, it is so finely filtered through their relationship that the crux of the movie remains inside of their small family drama.
In this latest film, Anderson mixes his miniature world with shots, taken on location, of vast European landscapes. For Gustave H. and Zero, the world they are thrust into beyond the hotel, despite their own wishes and intentions, is so wide they cannot help but run up against political realities of their time. Throughout the film politics and war is hinted at in slivers: A peeking headline on a newspaper. Silhouettes of gray soldiers in a field leading to both aforementioned episodes concerning the passports. The badges on the arms of soldiers marked, and the paper stock on a desk labeled, “ZZ”. Even the emptiness of the hotel and the beginning and end of the film. It’s all reminiscent of Zweig and the unfortunate truth that he learned—the world will change whether you like it or not, and if you blind yourself to political truths they will find you blind and take no pity on you.
So it is interesting that Anderson’s characters, inspired by Zweig’s characters, acknowledge nothing about the changing politics, despite the obvious signs all around them. In that way it is as if the adventure of the two characters is a distraction against the real drama playing out off screen, even off the page of the script. This is what turns out to be Gustave’s flaw. He is too concerned with his own shallow world of experience to recognize the dangers outside of it.
This may be as close as Wes Anderson gets to making a political film. And he has found a way to make a political statement in his signature style, a style which for years has appeared immune to political statements of any kind. Anderson’s style, after all, is appealing due to that very immunity, and the success of his films surely is related to a growing sense of political apathy, at least here in the United States. It all seems like a plea for awareness on the part of Anderson. Or if not a plea, an attempt to at least carry a message given to him by the writing of Stefan Zweig to a wider audience. The question now is not whether his loyal supporters will notice, but whether they will care. If they are to copy his set designs for their weddings, they may take his book suggestions as well.