A Tragicomedy of Errors
The screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s were benchmarks for generations of Hollywood filmmakers. Such laudable efforts as those of Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be), 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.
As a rule, comedy films are governed by a given set of parameters, many of them holdovers from the silent movie era. The standard formula for these pictures, then, combined aspects of a wacky plot, zany antics, an ensemble cast, the requisite chase scene, oh, and the occasional pratfall or two. With the injection of cynicism into the picture, epitomized by the classic films of Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), and the incongruous romances and knuckle-headed folly found in Woody Allen’s work (Bananas, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan), the world of madcap comedy took on a decidedly modern turn.
Be that as it may, the above properties began to rub off on a young and up-and-coming 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: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2020/06/15/only-lovers-left-alive-2013-a-parable-of-class-consciousness/), Anderson adopted many of the attributes normally associated with screwball comedies and turned them into quirky character studies.
Among his contributions are 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 audacious but adorable The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). I am happy to note that it was this feature that led me to explore all of Anderson’s work in reverse order, from the newest to the oldest.
But let’s call The Grand Budapest Hotel 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 concept exists, is eventually exposed, and the contents of what lies therein are spilled out for all to see and admire (or not).
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 enticing comedic showcase in the form of an “Encyclopedia Europa.” The experience of sifting through this filmic compilation, while scanning its horizons for deeper meaning (whether or not it relates to the basic premise), is left up to the viewer.
“An impossible assignment,” you say. 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, we can still find something new and fresh to sink our teeth into. For instance, the whizz-bang, fast-paced aspect of the story; the constant back-and-forth of characters entering and exiting; those head-on camera angles and revelatory tracking shots. Why, there’s no end to the innovations that Anderson employs in telling his faux-Continental fairy tale.
The way that he achieves his objectives is by an extension and reduction of the film frame in conformance to the story’s intent. 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 in her hand, bearing the inscription The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Suddenly, viewers are transported 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 (Marcel Mazur), who shoots a pellet at him from a toy pistol — a juvenile act that, in the course of the story, will come to symbolize the loss of innocence cloaked in deadly seriousness.
Next, the old Author whisks the viewer off to 1968 and the ramshackle rudiments of the Grand Budapest Hotel, tucked away in the fictional Zubrowka hills. 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 movie-making. Here, we are introduced to the Author as a young man (shades of Ernest Hemingway), played by an actor (Jude Law) of suitable age and vigor, in yet another manifestation of Herr Zweig. Young Author now takes over the narration.
In this section, though, the young Author is drawn to an elderly gentleman who sits motionless in the hotel’s lobby in contemplation of who knows what. Both men have a variant of the “meet cute” in the vast and empty bathhouse. Despite their unfamiliarity with each other, the elderly gentleman (F. Murray Abraham) invites the young Author to dine with him that evening. After the older gentleman has ordered his meal, he begins to open up about his life to the intensely receptive Author.
As it turns out, the older gentleman is Zero Moustafa, the former lobby boy and current owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel. His lined face and heavily-lidded features betray an individual who has spent a lifetime harboring sadness and loss. When Zero begins his sorrowful saga, we are once more 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 viewing space is a deliberate choice by the director, in that we begin our journey down old Author’s memory lane with a wide-angle shot — indicative of a broader grasp of the world at large.
As the frame tightens around a cluster of separate settings and images, the focus has correspondingly shifted along with it. With the frame having reached the aforementioned Academy ratio, the viewer can finally sit back and savor the nest of colorful characters and their individual dilemmas — a cinematic narrowing of the eyes, as it were, on exactly where Anderson wants his audiences to focus: mainly, on the year 1932.
This technique parallels Zweig’s own writing style. In other words: the more open the presentation, the less focused the story; the less open the presentation, the more focused the story. To be precise, Anderson has settled on a visual form of storytelling — the equivalent of picking up a favorite book and leafing through its pages, while stopping at key moments in the narrative so as to place one’s concentration on what’s written on the printed page. That it works as well as it does in this motion-picture format is a tribute to the director’s ingenuity and persistence in bringing his story to light.
When we are long past the movie’s three-quarter mark, the aspect ratios reverse course and return to their original proportions. We end up, surely enough, exactly where we began: with the little girl furtively closing the pages of her storybook.
Smash and Grab World
The basic plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a slapstick, knockabout comedy of the most absurd, revolves around a murder mystery tied to the theft of a dubious masterwork of Northern Renaissance art by fictitious painter Johannes van Hoytl the Younger. (Note to readers: Spoilers ahead!) To complicate matters further, audiences should be alert to the existence of a half-dozen or so side plots. Bear in mind, too, that one can hardly scratch the surface of these myriad plots in this review.
The painting, Boy with Apple, is an abominably crude, 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 one Bernardino Luini (1525) that hangs in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. Any relation to religiosity or the church, however, is purely incidental.
In actuality, the Boy’s features have an uncanny resemblance to that of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the head concierge of the illustrious Grand Budapest Hotel and (as described below) one of many principal protagonists. For those art history buffs out there, the apple the Boy holds in his hand is synonymous with the forbidden fruit which Gustave has not only tasted but indulged in to the fullest.
This garish artwork also happens to be Wes Anderson’s version of Hitchcock’s infamous MacGuffin, or that thing which the characters, both the good and the bad, are desperately searching for. The good guys, in this case, are M. Gustave and the young Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, in a literal pencil-thin mustache), his lobby boy in training. For the most part, the bad guys are comprised of the malevolent Dmitri (a more naturally-mustachioed Adrien Brody) and his sharp-toothed henchman Jopling (brass-knuckle-wielding Willem Dafoe).
Stuck in the middle somewhere (among other places) are the wealthy widow Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), apprentice baker and Zero’s intrepid lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), executor of Madame D.’s estate Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), Serge the nervous butler (Mathieu Amalric), the intimidating prisoner Ludwig (bald-pated Harvey Keitel), and the inquisitive Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), the officer in charge of finding the murderer. There are also a number of cohorts and accessories after the fact, to include members of the secret Society of the Crossed Keys(!).
Almost laughably, the stolen Boy with Apple is replaced with the all-too revealing Two Ladies Masturbating, their wide-open “charms” leaving nothing to the imagination. The irony lies in the fact that this prurient painting happens to be a true work of art, whereas the simplistic Boy with Apple is a travesty of portraiture. That its monetary value happens to drive the lunatic plot along is, in itself, farcical and hard to fathom. Seemingly, everyone runs around town 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, the easily angered Dmitri reacts in horror: “Holy fuck! What’s the meaning of this shit?” And immediately smashes the Two Ladies against a piece of sculpture. “Thus, always, to filthy artists!” he seems to be saying with this gesture. There will be more such moments to come.
Proof of Boy with Apple’s worthlessness can be seen in the episode that takes place in 1968 involving the nearly dilapidated Grand Budapest Hotel, where the painting hangs ignominiously above the bored desk clerk’s post. Similarly, it is pictured on the back of the hotel’s dinner menu (but you’ll have to look closely to find it). In this risible aside, Anderson mocks what the art world of the time considered “treasurable.” This revives the age-old argument over what one society reveres as “art” as opposed to what another deems as “obscene.” The film’s theme, in retrospect, becomes the story of an openly permissive society about to face artistic and socio-political repression.
Introducing Monsieur Gustave: From Hero to Zero
There are several star attractions in this convoluted comedy of errors, chief among them the ubiquitous Monsieur Gustave H., the Old World ambassador of a now-forgotten past. Handsome, debonair, charming, smooth-talking, sophisticated, and resolute — there are not enough adjectives to describe this fellow’s magnificence. 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 he surveys, but is immaculate in his appearance and dress (as to be expected).
Additionally, Gustave H. is blessed with a 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 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. And, as a matter of course, his supreme belief in himself and his abilities confirm what he sees in his mind’s eye: that he’s up to the challenge of any given situation, give or take a few exceptions.
As the film progresses, the viewer experiences a subtle pulling back of the bedsheets — more like a peeling away of the layers of a pungent-smelling onion (whew…). We learn, among other things, that Gustave is prone to exaggeration (that’s putting it mildly). He also possesses a terribly short fuse, especially when matters get out of hand. There are points in this tragicomedy where, down for the count and seemingly out, M. Gustave manages to wrangle his way back from a tricky situation. Where most people would give in to despair (for example, the brief time he spends in prison), Gustave seeks out opportunities to be of service. 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 dowager, Madame D. Sporting a Marie Antoinette hairdo by way of Antoine of Paris, Madame D. is enamored of the man. Early on, she confesses to him that she fears for her life. “She was shaking like a shitting dog,” Gustave mutters in an aside. Incredibly, the concierge is not repulsed by the woman’s advance 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 adds. He cultivates the illusion of subservience and refinement, but they’re all for show and (obviously) for later telling.
Our lobby boy in training, the young Zero, is a cipher by comparison, a real “nothing” as his name implies. Conveniently, he becomes Gustave’s protégé, someone the seasoned concierge can take under his wing. No doubt, M. Gustave sees much of his younger self in Zero. A youth barely out of his teens yet burdened with a lifetime of heartache over the loss of his family, at best Zero is a survivor. He tells us so at key moments in the story, as when Gustave, desperate to get his cooperation on learning the police want to question him about Madame D.’s passing, lets it slip that his family had been tortured and killed.
Still, Zero knows how to keep silent. “Zip it,” M. Gustave curtly orders. To his credit, Zero is a fast learner and always willing to pitch in. But as quick a study as he is, Zero cannot 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 rich old spinsters at his feet, Gustave is much in demand for his, uh, services. No wonder he’s so beloved by Zubrowka society! Who could resist such a treasure? The ladies find him eminently desirable, a reminder of their own youthful dalliances. Likewise, Gustave plays on the ladies’ vanity, until he is no longer able to.
Note the quick flashback to Gustave’s servicing of the old biddies. These “quickies” fulfill the dual purpose of solidifying Gustave’s patronage of and acquiescence to the “old ways” of doing things. Whether those old ways actually worked in his favor, no one can tell for certain. If anything, Gustave H. is the hotel’s last bastion of civility, the final redoubt of a way of life that will shortly cease to exist; an Old World society on the brink of all-out conflict and, as author Zweig termed it, “the end of all we know.”
Regardless of the consequences, both Gustave and Zero’s positions are a calculated means toward a desired end, designed to give themselves enough leeway — call it a “pause for effect” — where personal service, of a kind no longer in existence, takes absolute precedence.
As the top dog of (at one time) a luxury establishment, Gustave’s responsibility is to see to the comfort of his guests. As he’s putting young Zero through his paces (a terribly funny sequence punctuated by nonstop banter), Gustave explains that a lobby boy must anticipate his guests’ needs without their knowing what those needs are — a veritable feat of mind over matters of fact. This motto has served Gustave well, to a point. It will also serve our survivor, Zero, well into his old age.
For chaotic chase scenes and preposterous situations that defy the laws of gravity, nothing in recent years has topped the remarkable skiing sequence where Zero and Gustave are hot on the trail (on a cold, snow-covered slope) of the nasty little assassin Jopling, who experiences a nasty little comeuppance. There are mad dashes across the frozen tundra and others too implausible to give credence to. 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. You’ll be forced to wipe away a tear or two, as you smile broadly at the outcome.
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 period is embodied by the once-elegant Grand Budapest Hotel (Zweig’s “castle in the air”), whose lobby boy and head concierge are past emissaries of that last gasp of civility in an increasingly uncivil world. M. Gustave had both feet planted in each of these worlds, although anachronistically speaking he was out of step with the times. His genteel manners and general air of bonhomie were woefully inadequate to thwart the coming menace, especially when confronted by brutish military guards. And with most of the deaths occurring offscreen, it’s left it to our imagination to fill in the gruesome details.
Writer-director Wes Anderson, along with his collaborator Hugo Guinness, have given audiences not just a tale as tall as Zubrowka’s hills but one involving a world that once prided itself on knowledge and culture, on nourishing the intellect and satiating the senses. However, towards the end that same world, corrupted by forces from within, rebelled against common decency. It turned away from knowledge and understanding to perpetuate false notions of superiority; to raising borders against those who were different, and allowing their basest, most bellicose instincts to take over.
In that, and in most other respects, The Grand Budapest Hotel has much in common with Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, a dark, portentous comedy premiering in March of 1942 (and set ten years after Anderson’s film) that poked fun, if we can call it that, at Hitler, the Nazis, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the German occupation of Warsaw, and the Second World War. The alarm was already sounding when United Artists released this classic picture.
A month earlier, in February 1942, in the resort city of Petropolis near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his second wife committed suicide together. Despondent over the state of their beloved Vienna and the chaos unleashed upon the world, Zweig and his spouse resolved to put an end their suffering.
Civilizations, take note: The warning signs are as viable today 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