In Search of Lost Time: Looking at the Small Stuff in The Grand Budapest Hotel

In the very best films there are always a handful of quiet things that insist on the large-scale completeness and grandeur of the filmmakers’ vision for their work. The big scenes are always there to be commented upon and picked over regardless of how good or bad a film might be. To me, though, the very best filmmakers often leave their mark in the quieter or more subdued moments. Perhaps the classic example of this is the story of the girl with the parasol in Citizen Kane. That little moment remains with me as much as anything else in that masterpiece, but it has none of the showmanship and chutzpah that Orson Welles’ work is so renowned for. It’s just a quiet moment of grace and insight which subtly illuminates all the rest of the film’s emotions and themes upon reflection. I am not bold enough to say that The Grand Budapest Hotel,  the new film from my favorite director, Wes Anderson, has anything on the level of that immortal parasol story (or Citizen Kane in general). But I do think this is a wonderful film that is brought to most vivid life and vibrancy by such small moments illuminating the larger construct.

In brief, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of two men who are deeply dedicated to their calling to serve others: M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the wondrously capable concierge of the titular resort, which is nestled in a fantasy corner of the European Alps in 1932, and his new lobby boy, Zero. The elder is self-absorbed, fastidious, flirtatious, lonely, prone to fits of pique and profanity when crossed, and overly gracious to any and everyone. He is also an all-around hoot and might be the most enjoyable Anderson protagonist since Royal Tenenbaum. Imagine Max Fischer in middle-age, but with impeccable social graces and a penchant for much older women and you’re in the ballpark. Zero is a young émigré from South Asia; he is quiet, somewhat jealous and romantic, and deeply dedicated to making his way in this new homeland because he cannot return to the old one. The two wind up in the middle of a caper involving the inheritance a dead octogenarian lover of M. Gustave right on the eve of an unmistakably fascist revolution.

Putting the plot out of the way, there are a few particular things I wanted to comment upon. First, and perhaps most notably, this film is an incredible amount of fun. I know a lot of people are not fans of Wes Anderson’s aesthetic (and thus his films generally), which is a real shame to me, because they are missing out on a tremendously pleasurable time at the theater. The Grand Budapest Hotel might be the closest thing a farce Anderson has ever made. This is a masterful comedy, brimming with an anarchic screwball energy and dialogue that is somehow loquacious, particular, and sharp all at once. The many scenes were Fiennes, whom I have never seen give a better performance, dashes about peppering everyone he encounters with compliments, wit, poetry, and queries plastered a grin all over my face. Perhaps even better are the moments where M. Gustave’s plans go awry or his airs are broken through and we see the melancholy and anger that come barking out in hilarious bits of profanity, disdain, and confrontation. There are a couple of superbly amusing action set-pieces as well, a prison escape and high-speed chase, as only Wes Anderson could do them (that is to say they are impossibly low-fi and winning). It is an entertainment made with the almost extinct qualities of charm, gentility, and empathy which defined the comedies of Ernst Lubitschand Billy Wilder. Not coincidentally those Hollywood pros were émigrés from that locations and cultures of a lost Central Europe that Anderson is paying homage to here.

That lost world is another important and wonderful thing about this movie I wanted to mention. Wes Anderson is by now all but inseparable from his penchant for carefully controlled (or, depending on your feelings, fussy) aesthetics and  gee-wiz retro affectations in the pursuit of building very particular and hermetically sealed worlds. His films are unmistakably his, and are instantly recognizable at that, even if their settings vary wildly. Yet despite looking and feeling exactly like a Wes Anderson film “should,” I think The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film deeply rooted to a particular time, place, and way of living. Inspired by the writing of Stefan Zweig, the film is essentially a tribute to the last gasps of an old, self-consciously sophisticated European culture of gentility, grace, and intelligence that was swept away by the ravages of the 20th Century. Not that I am necessarily a huge fan of said culture in a historical or political sense, but it certainly had its charms and here represents a last gasp of the grandiosity, decadence, and joys of refinement and cordiality. That culture, and many of the locations that housed it, were all but destroyed by two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the dueling degradations of Communist ideological enmity in the East and consumerist commoditization in the West.

But in The Grand Budapest Hotel that past is regained, if only for 100 minutes, and it is marvelous to behold. Anderson’s production team does its usual eye-popping work (if this doesn’t finally get an Anderson film nominated for Production Design at the Oscars I will throw a cat out a window). Almost as if showing off, the film uses a frame narration to tell the story of M. Gustave and Zero, which lets us glimpse four different eras in the history of the tiny fictional nation of Zubrowka. The filmmakers throw touches both large and small into the set dressing, costume design, and lighting in order to thoroughly place each segment in to a pitch-perfect recreation of its time. The 1930’s segment is sumptuous and inviting in the hotel, manors, and resorts, a still-breathing recreation of glamour and vanity that is about to crumble. But we also see little servants’ hovels and winding pre-modern streets, a reminder of the working peoples’ struggle to support the decadence of the top. On the other hand, the Brutalist aesthetics of the 60’s segment are impeccably conceived an executed as well. An exacting conjuration of the drabness that typified style behind the Iron Curtain. It initially lendsthat section of the film a sad-sack humor before more plot is revealed and the bland future takes on a darker and sadder feel.

The sense of a lost time regained through this stylish recreation, if only briefly and inevitably lost again, actually plays directly into both the central theme of Anderson’s work here (perhaps all of his work). One of my favorite small moments in any film is Max Fischer saying “Sic transit gloria – glory fades.” in Rushmore. It’s such a sad, profound, and heart-breaking thing to say, especially when delivered with the bitter resignation and disappointment that Jason Schwartzman brings to his line-reading. That idea of faded glory seems to permeate Anderson’s films, perhaps none more so than The Grand Budapest Hotel. We first see the hotel as a forlorn dump occupied only by lost & lonely souls as it wends towards oblivion. For the vast majority of the film’s run-time we see its previous self, a vast and magisterial playland for the wealthy and the strivers of inter-war Europe, but that first image is hard to shake for the viewer and inevitable for the characters. The wizened Zero (F. Murray Abraham) who relates the story of M. Gustave to an author (Jude Law), who then tells the story to the audience, admits that he holds onto the hotel out of nostalgia for his long-dead wife and child. He knows they cannot come back, but he lingers there because it was where he was happiest. We surmise that much the same was true of M. Gustave before that. He worked frantically to maintain The Grand Budapest as a haven of security, culture, and camaraderie in the face of a world about to rip itself to pieces again and again in the name of nation and ideology. It’s a hopeless struggle for both men to hang on, but they do so anyway because a crumbling world they know and can control is still better than a fallen and deadly one in which they are hopelessly outmatched. That grand hotel, and the culture, time, and people it represents, are a lie agreed upon for the owners, curators, and inhabitants. But what a lovely and deeply-felt lie it is.

It’s hard not to read M. Gustave, Zero, and all the other similarly-dedicated Anderson protagonists as avatars for the man himself. Like his characters, Anderson’s work is self-conscious, highly efficient, and detail-oriented in the extreme. Perhaps no other director is so often pointed to as an example of style over substance, with no room in his works for emotion or insight behind all that finely-wrought fakery. Obviously, I disagree, and I think those small details I mentioned earlier and moments bear this out. Look at some of the indescribably beautiful shots that pepper the film: trains running through a wintry blue landscape; gas lamps illuminating oak tables and cobble-stoned streets in early evening; a vast and dilapidated dining room that now hosts only a few strangers. Or look to some the little moments of connection and grace between characters: Gustave and Zero talking about their plans while sitting in peasant’s rags atop a haystack built in the same way by the same families for centuries; a police captain asking for civility towards Gustave because the older man was nice to him as a child; a story-teller’s eyes brimming with tears as he quietly remembers a person long-since passed. In those moments Anderson’s energetic and driven work grounds itself with real emotional and thematic weight. Just like the rooms in the Grand Budapest that Gustave takes his guests to, they are the places of refuge and rest Anderson maintains for all us weary travelers.

Alex Bean

A life-long Midwesterner, currently living and working in Chicago. Primarily writes here about television and film (which is what he accrued crushing debt to study in school), but will write about books, sports, video games, or whatever else strikes his fancy. He's the one who thinks baseball is really boring.

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