At the Movies

Michael Wood

Once upon a time there was a place called Europe. All the paintings there were by Klimt and all the music by Mahler. No, there were also special Richard Strauss evenings, and the cafés played Johann Strauss waltzes all the time. Everyone was analysed by Freud, but it didn’t make any difference. They were very rich and they had terrific furniture. Many of them were waiting for a bit part in La Ronde.

And of course these people, when they were not at home, stayed at the best hotels, where in the words of the leading character in Wes Anderson’s new film, their needs were met ‘before the needs were needed’. The wealthy were pampered, and the pampered felt wealthy. Is the Grand Budapest Hotel of the movie in Budapest? How could you ask? Budapest is just a name, a link to Eastern associations in case the idea of Vienna doesn’t take us far enough into the old empire. The hotel’s location is an imaginary country in something resembling historical time: Zubrowka in the 1930s, with dashes of an earlier war thrown in. The capital city is Lutz, which allows for the all too predictable rhyming terrors of Lutz blitz. Nothing like a z to make you feel you are somewhere else, and in this movie even the Nazis co-operate: the SS become the ZZ, with a fancy squiggle in the middle of the letters.

Still, the imaginary country is really occupied, and the implication is that even worlds that never existed can be damaged – we can suffer from their loss. This curious possibility is precisely defined late in the film by the narrator – one of the narrators, we’ll get to this – in answer to a question about the leading character. Had he lost his connection to a vanished world? No. ‘His world had vanished before he even entered it.’

Who’s he? He is the manager of the Grand Budapest Hotel, one Monsieur Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes in a very funny campy mode that manages to be both humane and ironic, the real fey thing and its parody. But the world that vanished before Monsieur Gustave entered it belongs to Stefan Zweig, whom Anderson at the end of the movie credits as an inspiration. Zweig was born in an actual Europe and left, in the 1930s, to die in an actual Brazil. But he was pretty much the only begetter of the Europe I have described. Best known during his lifetime for his vast and immensely readable biographies (of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Marie Antoinette, Mary Queen of Scots), he has recently been resurrected (in English, that is, since in French and German he hadn’t died) as the author of brilliant and bitter, if slightly too well-made fictions. It is from Joan Acocella’s fine introduction to one of them (Beware of Pity) that I take the fact that Zweig wrote a book called The World of Yesterday and the notion that he ‘saw himself as a citizen not of any one country, but of Europe as a whole.’ Of course Zweig was more serious about that world than the movie is or wants to be. He thought he had lived there. The movie thinks no one did.

It is also as much about hotels and servants and customers as it is about any kind of age or empire. We could think of it as a Jeeves story with multiple masters and an assassination or two. Or we could say the hotel is Monsieur Gustave’s empire. He rules it absolutely, an energetic gay man who sleeps with all his rich female customers, and turns apparent subservience into an art of extensive control. His straight sidekick is Zero, an immigrant lobby-boy played by Tony Revolori. Monsieur Gustave’s most spectacular ancient client is Tilda Swinton, who looks and speaks as if she had been mummified for years before her death. There is the story of a stolen painting, of Monsieur Gustave’s imprisonment on a false charge of murder, and of his escape with a band of thugs led by a bald and tattooed Harvey Keitel, impeccably playing Harvey Keitel. There is the dreadful family of Tilda Swinton (three ugly sisters, a spiteful son who is Adrien Brody got up to look like Salvador Dalí), and its hired assassin, Willem Dafoe, with metal teeth and a motorbike and lots of leather gear. There is a secret society of managers of posh hotels, designed to help out any member in time of crisis, and we see several of its constituents making a crucial phone call on behalf of Monsieur Gustave. And there is an orchestrated chase across snowy mountains; one of the best lines in the film is the instruction given to Monsieur Gustave and Zero as they gallop into an isolated alpine monastery: ‘Put these on and sing.’ ‘These’ are the white habits of a monk and a rosary each.

The list of stars in the film (Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, all the others mentioned elsewhere in this piece) is a clue to what we are watching. They are all themselves, bringing with them the clouds of movies they have been in. They have come to the party. This effect is largely kept up by the dialogue, which is resolutely contemporary, making no concession to the supposed historical period of the film. At one point, in a train that has been boarded by brutal soldiers who want to arrest the alien-looking Zero, Monsieur Gustave manages to appeal to the commanding officer, a former guest at the hotel. All is well, and Monsieur Gustave makes a little speech, more to himself than to Zero, celebrating the remainders of civilisation and kindness still to be found in a slaughterous world. Halfway through his second sentence he breaks off and says, ‘Oh, fuck it.’ He has for a moment become tired of pretending to be the stylish defender of the fading old ways. It wasn’t a civilisation, it was just a club.

The dialogue can be flat and slow, and the joke about Monsieur Gustave’s fondness for his cologne, the scent spray that takes away the animal odours of the world, would wear thin if it wasn’t so thin to start with. The narrative structure of the film is a bit cumbersome too, even if it is an homage to the frame-tales Zweig was so fond of. We see a girl in a city park, paying tribute to the bust of a writer on top of a small pillar. She sits down to read a book called Grand Budapest Hotel. Next we see an elderly writer (Tom Wilkinson), apparently filming a television interview at home. He gives way to his younger self (Jude Law), who is staying at almost empty and not quite derelict Grand Budapest Hotel. He meets the owner, who turns out to be Zero, played in age by F. Murray Abraham. He has inherited the hotel from Monsieur Gustave who inherited from Tilda Swinton. Zero tells the writer his story, and that story constitutes the main narrative of the film. The device sounds worse in description than it is in the cinema, but it’s still a little overworked, and pulls against the film’s main interest, which is not memory or the personal tale but the sheer dream of a society that never was.

One of the film’s best recurring effects is the matching of its world to our own jaded or partial expectations, a kind of pastiche of our taste for pastiche. Monsieur Gustave, an austere man in his perfumed way, has a tiny cubicle of a room. When he addresses the servants en masse, he stands at a lectern and the vast spaces of the hotel shrink to the dimensions of his cubicle – in width, that is. The staff are all crowded into a lengthy corridor, and we realise that this is a visual impression not of the hotel’s architecture but of how he makes them feel. When we see the inside of a lift, it is painted gaudy red, like the walls of a brothel in a movie: the hotel keeps up with our lurid desires. When Tilda Swinton’s will is read out, the narrator tells us her estranged family members have gathered in their greed, and the shot opens on a vast room packed with a ready-made set of nasty-looking people in black, and even the oak-panelled walls seem to be hoping for a bequest.

Wes Anderson has said he was thinking of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich when he made the movie, and while some of the hotel scenes were shot in an old department store, many of them were done with a miniature. This concentration on art and confection sometimes makes you feel you are watching a film made inside a birthday cake, but the effect isn’t sticky. It’s luxurious, full of a kind of corrupt, irreverent fun, although its luxury reminds us of its coming decadence – as if tomorrow were already creeping into this fancy today, and we could almost reverse the proposition about the vanished world. This world has died before we have even finished watching it.

But what is the lure of this confection? Why should we care? Why does it matter that Monsieur Gustave and Zero’s brave friend Agatha die before the movie is over and that only a creaking Zero is left to tell the tale? What do the near-Nazis have to do with the story? Anderson says he doesn’t know why he wanted to invent the world of his movie, but it is so patiently and lovingly invented that it’s tempting to guess at a reason. One possibility would be the thought that old Europe, with its shaky and often merely fictitious civilisation, made room for all kinds of people and gave them their chance: it liked the mess the Nazis came to clear up. We on the other hand, infallibly anti-Nazi as we are, do seem to prefer clearing up to remembering chaotic kindnesses.