History, Storytelling, and Loneliness: A Review of The Grand Budapest Hotel

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Wes Anderson films share many similar stylistic and thematic elements, but the most potent similarity is their dramatic layering. Case in point: though Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel presents itself as an entertaining farce wrapped in a complex narrative, it ultimately reveals itself to be a melancholic portrayal of loneliness rippled out over the course of history.

Primarily set in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka in 1932, the film follows the relationship between Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the devoted concierge at the famed Grand Budapest Hotel, and his trusted employee, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the hotel’s new lobby boy and Gustave’s unofficial assistant. Throughout Gustave’s tenure as a concierge, he courts numerous rich, elderly blond women who frequent the hotel, but when one of his girlfriends, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), dies under mysterious circumstances, he and Zero rush to her wake and discover that she has left Gustave a valuable painting in her will. Soon after, Gustave is framed for Madame D.’s murder and is on the run with Zero from various villains—Dmitri (Adrien Brody), Madame D.’s son, J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe), a hired assassin, and Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), to name a few—in order to clear Gustave’s name.

Anderson presents this story as a history, and through the film’s nested narrative structure, the audience experiences it as such. The Grand Budapest Hotel opens on the present day as a girl reads a book at the cemetery about the Grand Budapest Hotel written by “The Author.” The film then cuts to The Author as an Old Man (Tom Wilkinson) explaining directly to the camera how his younger self (Jude Law) traveled to the aging Grand Budapest in 1968 to discover more about the once-great hotel. Then, the film cuts to The Author as a Young Man meeting an aging Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who tells him the story of Gustave and the Grand Budapest in the final years of its glory days. While the film is mostly set in 1932, Anderson cuts back and forth between time periods to illustrate the story’s age, specifically how an old story is kept alive by the act of storytelling. Anderson never lets the audience forget that the history of Gustave and Zero, the history of the Grand Budapest, and the history of the war-torn Zubrowka would be forgotten if The Author didn’t preserve them.

While The Grand Budapest Hotel is comic—much of it is played for comedy, specifically in the editing, Anderson’s writing, and the action set pieces—a deep melancholic strain runs through the film because of this historical focus. There’s a cut early in the film that illustrates this melancholy succinctly: when The Author as a Young Man first travels to the dilapidated Grand Budapest in 1968, he describes in voiceover how the once great hotel has fallen on hard times over the years. Anderson visually depicts this by panning across the Zubrowka region before stopping on a shot of the hotel in its pristine, immaculate prime before quickly cutting to another shot of the hotel in its “current” state, a run-down ruin.

Though he provides a two-second glimpse of the Grand Budapest in all its glory, the audience’s first real introduction to the hotel is as a relic through the eyes of The Author as a Young Man. Anderson makes the audience see the hotel as a remnant of the past before they can see it as the towering institution it to portray the inevitability of decay. He extends this to the characters as well, as the audience sees aging versions of the Author and Zero before seeing their spritely younger versions. In a perfectly understated fashion, Anderson cues the audience to see the film’s main story as a relic itself: that all the adventure, romance, and joy exists squarely in the past, and the ruins are all that remain.

In that glorious past, Gustave is a larger-than-life figure that controls every little detail of the hotel and his life, but Anderson is careful to frame him as a profoundly lonely man desperate for connection and purpose. Anderson’s trademark wide shots are put to great use as Gustave is routinely in the center of the action, but he is ultimately defined by the hotel that surrounds him. However, Anderson shares sizable credit with Fiennes for bringing Gustave’s character to life. Fiennes brings palpable sadness and despair to his role and thus grounds an effete, broadly comic character in reality.

The strongest connection Gustave has to another person is not with his many elderly girlfriends, but with Zero, his trusted aide. Anderson frames Gustave and Zero tightly in enclosed, window-like spaces, and in long shots that serve to illustrate their closeness while emphasizing the vast Zubrowka region that threatens to consume them. In their most tender, honest moments, Gustave and Zero share a specific intimacy that transcends any conventional label. These are two people who need each other or else they would be hopelessly fading away into irrelevance. One only needs a few shots of the elderly Zero’s sad, broken face as he tells his story to illustrate the effect of Gustave’s absence on his life.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly Anderson’s densest work to date, but it also might be his best film since 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou because of how much it reveals of itself over time. The Grand Budapest Hotel might feel slight to some, a minor farce that aims for laughter over profundity, but the more time spent with the film, the more it seems like a statement on the necessity of stories. Anderson provides urgency to Gustave and Zero’s adventure because it exists in relation to a series of larger untold narratives about Zubrowka and the Grand Budapest. No one ever gets a full picture of the past, and Anderson creates the sense that this story is important because it’s one that has survived.

It’s always been a critical cop-out to reduce Anderson’s films to their dazzling surfaces, but a cursory viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel could potentially misrepresent the true nature of the film. The gap between its narrative surface and its thematic substance might seem large at first, but The Grand Budapest Hotel eventually demonstrates that the former illuminates the latter, and vice versa. In fact, The Grand Budapest Hotel makes the best argument so far that Anderson’s style and his substance are one and the same.

Featured image courtesy of http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/

Tag: Wes Anderson’s farcically complex narrative is only half the story

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