Culture Magazine

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014) — Last Bastion of Civility

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s were benchmarks for generations of Hollywood filmmakers. Such laudable achievements as those of Preston Surges ( The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek), Ernst Lubitsch ( The Shop Around the Corner), Howard Hawks ( Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), and Frank Capra ( It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace) exerted a strong influence on many of the era's directors - and on those yet to come.

The standard formula combined aspects of a wacky plot, zany antics, an ensemble cast, hilarious chase sequences, and the occasional pratfall. With the injection of cynicism, epitomized in the classic films of Billy Wilder ( Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), as well as incongruous romances and outright knuckle-headedness in Woody Allen's work ( Bananas, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan), the world of madcap comedy took on a decidedly modernist tint.

Nevertheless, the above properties began to rub off on a young and capable Texan named Wes Anderson. An independent writer-director, who followed in the footsteps of another well-known advocate for autonomy, the equally gifted Jim Jarmusch (whose Only Lovers Left Alive was reviewed by yours truly - see the following link:, Anderson consolidated many of the attributes one normally associates with the phrase "screwball comedy" by turning to quirky character studies.

Among his major contributions are the films Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). As for myself, I am embarrassed to admit that, for a variety of reasons, I remained ignorant of Anderson's previous output - that is, until I was introduced to the absurdly ridiculous The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). I am happy to say that it was this film that led me to explore all of Anderson's work in reverse order, from the newest to the oldest.

But let's call out The Grand Budapest Hotel for what it is: i.e., the cinematic equivalent of a Russian nesting doll in which layer after layer of stories within stories are peeled back to reveal ... well, more layers of stories. The "truth," if indeed such a point exists, is eventually exposed; and the doors of what lies hidden behind them are flung open for all to view and comment upon.

Indeed, Mr. Anderson, along with veteran cinematographer Robert Yeoman, set designer Adam Stockhausen, costume designer Milena Canonero, editor Barney Pilling, and composer Alexandre Desplat, have concocted an utterly irresistible feature in the form of an "Encyclopedia Europica." The experience of sifting through this filmic compilation, while looking for useful tidbits of information (whether or not they relate to the basic premise), is left to the individual viewer to make sense of it all.

"An impossible assignment," you say. No, not really. How Anderson and his dedicated crew of technicians succeeded in dissecting this amalgamation of material is part of the fun of watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even after multiple viewings, one still finds something new and fresh to concentrate on. For instance, the whizz-bang pace of the story; the constant back-and-forth of characters entering and exiting; the head-on camera angles and those revelatory tracking shots.

The way that Anderson achieves his objective is by an expansion and reduction of the film frame in conformance to the story's content. It begins in the present time, with a little girl walking through a cemetery on a bleak winter's day. She stops at the gravesite of a famous writer, modeled after the Viennese author Stefan Zweig. The girl carries a storybook with the title The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Suddenly, we are sent back in time, to the year 1985, with the old Author (Tom Wilkinson) sitting front and center, reading from a prepared text. He is interrupted by his little grandson, who shoots a pellet at him from a toy pistol - a childish act that, in the course of the story, will manifest itself in separate guises. Innocence cloaked in deadly earnestness.

Next, the old Author transports the viewer to 1968 and a now dilapidated Grand Budapest Hotel. The film frame, which began with the Standard aspect ratio of 1.85:1, expands to the full 2.40:1 ratio of CinemaScope, the apogee of widescreen moviemaking. Here, we are introduced to the Author as a young man, played by an actor (Jude Law) of suitable age and vigor, yet another manifestation of Herr Zweig.

In this section, the young Author is drawn to an elderly man who sits motionless in the lobby of the Grand Budapest in contemplation of who knows what. Both gentlemen have kind of a "meet cute" (or its equivalent) in the vast and empty bathhouse. The elderly man (F. Murray Abraham) invites the young Author to dinner that evening to tell his story. After the older man has ordered his meal, he begins to relate his tale to an openly receptive Author.

As it turns out, the older man is Zero Moustafa, the former lobby boy and current owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel. His lined face and heavily-lidded features betray a man who has lived quite a long time with sadness and loss. When Zero begins his sorrowful saga, we are once again treated to a further reduction of the frame, this time to the Academy ratio of 1.37:1. This steady narrowing of the movie's frame is a deliberate choice by the director, in that we began our trip down the Author's memory lane with a wide-angle view - indicative of a broader grasp of the world at large.

As the frame lengthens and tightens around a cluster of separate settings, the focus has correspondingly shifted as well. Lastly, as the frame reaches the aforementioned Academy ratio, the viewer can finally sit back and concentrate on the individual characters and their dilemmas, a cinematic narrowing of one's eyes, as it were, on exactly where Anderson wants us to be, in the year 1932.

The technique parallels Zweig's own style of writing. In other words: the more open the presentation, the less focus on the story; the less open the presentation, the more focus on the story. Anderson has settled on the visual equivalent of picking up a book and leafing through its pages, while stopping at key points in the narrative so as to concentrate on what's on the written page. That it works as well in motion-picture format is a tribute to the director's ingenuity and persistence in bringing his story to light.

Long past the three-quarter point, the aspect ratios reverse course and return to their original proportions. We end up where we started, with the little girl closing the pages of her storybook.

Smash and Grab World

The basic plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a slapstick, knockabout comedy of the absurd, revolves around a murder mystery tied to the theft of a dubious masterpiece of Northern Renaissance art by fictitious painter Johannes van Hoytl the Younger. (Note to readers: Spoilers ahead!).

This painting, Boy with Apple, is an absurdly amateurish recreation modeled after Hans Holbein the Younger's portraits of European nobility. It also bears a striking similarity to a High Renaissance portrait of The Magdalene by Bernardino Luini (1525) that hangs in Washington D.C.'s National Gallery of Art.

In actuality, the Boy's face resembles that of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), head concierge of the illustrious Grand Budapest Hotel and (as described below) on of the principal characters. The apple the Boy holds is synonymous with the forbidden fruit which Gustave has not only tasted but indulged himself to the fullest.

This garish artwork happens to be the Wes Anderson version of Alfred Hitchcock's MacGuffin, or that thing which the protagonists, both good and bad, are searching for. The good guys, in this case, are M. Gustave and the young Zero (Tony Revolori), his lobby boy in training. The bad guys here are Dmitri (a mustachioed Adrien Brody) and his henchman Jopling (brass-knuckle-wearing Willem Dafoe).

Stuck in the middle somewhere are wealthy widow Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), an apprentice baker and Zero's lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), executor of Madame D.'s estate Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), Serge X the butler (Mathieu Amalric), the prisoner Ludwig (bald-pated Harvey Keitel), and the inquisitive Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), the officer in charge of finding the murderer.

Almost laughably, Boy with Apple is replaced with the revealing Two Ladies Masturbating, their wide-open "charms" leaving nothing to the imagination. The irony lies in the fact that THIS is a true work of art, whereas the simplistic Boy with Apple is a travesty of portraiture. That its monetary value happens to be what drives the lunatic plot along is, in itself, farcical and hard to believe. Seemingly, everyone runs around after an object of questionable worth, which is as it should be in a screwball comedy. Lessons are learned, some for better and some for worse.

Upon seeing Two Ladies Masturbating instead of Boy with Apple, what does easily angered Dimitri do? He cries out, "Holy fuck!" And immediately smashes the Two Ladies against a piece of sculpture. Thus, always, to filthy artists, he seems to be saying.

Proof of the painting's lack of worth can be seen in the episode that takes place in 1968 involving the dilapidated Grand Budapest Hotel, where Boy with Apple hangs ignominiously above the desk clerk's post. Similarly, it is also pictured on the back of the hotel's dinner menu. Anderson appears to mock what the art world of that time considered "treasurable." This revives the old argument over what one society reveres as "art" as opposed to what another deems as "obscene." It's the story of an openly permissive society facing artistic repression.

Introducing Monsieur Gustave: From Zero to Hero

There are several "main attractions" in this comedy of errors, chief among them the ubiquitous Monsieur Gustave H., the Old World ambassador of a now-forgotten past - handsome, debonair, smooth-talking, suave, sophisticated, articulate, and resolute. A bon vivant par excellence, M. Gustave is discretion personified. His movements are planned to split-second perfection. His speech and rapid-fire delivery are executed with Swiss-watch precision. Indeed, timing is everything to this professional busybody. He's not only a master of all that is around him, but is immaculate in his dress and appearance.

Gustave H. is a character blessed with a razor-sharp wit whose mind races constantly at breakneck speed, a thoroughbred among also-rans. For a concierge, he is quite the man-about-town. Ah, but Gustave does have his little faults. For one, he never thinks of himself as simply a concierge. He's the prime cut to everyone else's roast beef; the filet mignon to their rib steak. As a matter of course, his supreme belief in himself and his abilities confirms what his mind's eye sees.

As the film progresses and the story unfolds, the viewer experiences a pulling back of the bedsheets - more like a peeling away of the layers of a pungent-scented onion. We learn that Gustave is prone to exaggeration (and that's putting it mildly). He also possesses a short fuse, especially when things go wrong. There are points in this tragicomedy where, down for the count and seemingly out, M. Gustave manages to wrangle his way out of a tricky situation. Each time he rises above the tumult, only to find that by movie's end his luck has run out.

He is especially favored by the doddering Madame D. Sporting a Marie Antoinette hairdo by way of Antoine de Paris, Madame D. confesses to Gustave that she is fearful for her life. "She was shaking like a shitting dog," Gustave mutters to Zero. Incredibly, the concierge is not repulsed by the woman's age, nor by the dozens of elderly widows he surrounds himself with. On the contrary, he finds them much to his liking. "She was dynamite in the sack, by the way," he observes. "She was 84," queries Zero. "Mmm, I've had older," Gustave confirms. He cultivates the illusion of refinement, but it's all for show and (obviously) for tell.

Our lobby boy in training, the young Zero Moustafa, is a cipher by comparison, a real "nothing" as his name indicates. He becomes Gustave's protégé. A youth barely out of his teens but burdened with a lifetime of baggage and heartache over the loss of his family, at best Zero is a survivor. He tells us so at key moments, such as when Gustave, desperate to get his cooperation on learning that the police want to question him about Madame D.'s death, lets the concierge know about his having been tortured.

Zero knows to keep his trap shut. "Zip it," M. Gustave curtly orders him. To his credit, Zero is a fast learner and always willing to help. But as quick a study as he is, Zero can't possibly touch Gustave H. in the (how shall we put it) gratification department. Gustave aims to please, which takes on many forms. With a wealth of old spinsters at his beck and call, M. Gustave is much in demand for his, uh, services. No wonder he's so beloved by Zubrowka society! The ladies find in him eminently desirable, a reminder of their youthful sex drives. Likewise, Gustave plays on the ladies' vanity, until he can no longer do so.

Note the quick flashbacks of Gustave "servicing" the old biddies. These fulfill the dual purpose of solidifying Gustave's patronage of and acquiescence to the "old ways" of doing things. Whether they worked or not, no one can tell for certain. If anything, Gustave H. is the last bastion of civility, the final redoubt of a way of life that will shortly cease to exist; a society on the brink of all-out conflict and, as author Zweig termed it, "the end of all we know."

Regardless, both Gustave and Zero's positions are a calculated means toward a desired end; they are designed to give themselves enough leeway - call it a "pause for effect" where personal service, of a kind no longer in existence, takes precedence. As the top dog of (at one time) a luxury establishment such as the Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave's responsibility is to see to the comfort of his guests. As he's putting young Zero through his paces, Gustave explains (in the older Zero's voice) that a lobby boy must anticipate the guests' needs without their knowing what those needs are - a veritable mind over materialism. This motto has served Gustave well, and will also serve the survivor Zero.

For comic chase scenes, nothing in recent years has topped the unbelievable bobsled sequence where Zero and Gustave are hot on the trail (on a cold, snow-filled ski slope) of the nasty little assassin Jopling, who meets a nasty little end. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but the climax and dénouement of The Grand Budapest Hotel are nothing if not bittersweet.

Stefan Zweig wrote, in his autobiographical The World of Yesterday, that "our world of security was a castle in the air." In Wes Anderson's film, that bygone era is embodied by the elegant Grand Budapest Hotel (Zweig's "castle"), whose lobby boy and head concierge are emissaries of that last gasp (or "air") of civility in an increasingly uncivil realm. M. Gustave has planted both feet in each of these spheres, although anachronistically speaking he's out of step with the times. His manners and general air of bonhomie are woefully inadequate, especially when he's confronted with brutish military guards.

Writer-director Wes Anderson, along with his collaborator Hugo Guinness, have given us a tale of a world that once prided itself on knowledge and culture, on nourishing the intellect and satisfying the senses. But towards the end, that same world, corrupted by forces from within, rebelled and turned away from knowledge and understanding to perpetuate false notions of superiority; to raising borders against those who are different, and allowing their basest, most bellicose instincts to take over.

Those warnings are as viable now as they were so many decades ago. We must not let the world of yesterday become the world of tomorrow. Zweig's message was clear. And Anderson's film has underscored it.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog