M. Gustave, the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, lives in a world that never really existed. It is a world defined by the perfect marriage of luxury and ascetic simplicity, of work and pleasure, and of principles and actuality. In Gustave’s world, “on the easternmost border of the European empire,” there are no contradictions. A concierge can offer sexual favors as a complimentary service and preach a sermon to his staff without batting an eye. In our world, these contradictions of purity and indulgence split souls like fault lines. But memories of the Grand Budapest in its prime cannot recall iniquity.Wes Anderson is no nihilist—he loves his deeply flawed characters enough to portray them in earnest, and to resurrect their failures and strengths into a world wonderfully redeemed yet substantially realistic.Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel begins in a cemetery in present day Zubrowka, a cross between Freedonia and East Germany, at the grave of the author of apocryphal book The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film then takes us back on a guided tour to 1985, where the unnamed narrator and author stops briefly before taking us back yet again to the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1963, when the place was already only a shell of its former glory. From there, we are taken even further back to 1932, at the apex of the hotel’s glory. It’s a story within a story within a story. Or, more precisely, a story within a memory within a memory.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film about memories from memories. The story is filtered through so many sets of eyes that it is unclear who is really telling the tale of the effeminate and autodidactic M. Gustave.
Newcomer Tony Revolori gives a fantastic yet understated performance as Zero, the lobby boy with an eyeliner mustache. It’s a debut worthy of Wes Anderson, who here continues his remarkable success in relying on children, new actors, and young adults. Ralph Fiennes (i.e., Voldemort) as M. Gustave is just as much a pleasure; his dialogue is sharp, wry, and delightful. But it is the world that Wes Anderson welcomes us into that steals the show: the lobby of the Grand Budapest, the idyllic bakery, the cartoonish lifts and trolleys, the colors, the mustaches, the dialogue, the comically long ladders.
Anderson’s famous aesthetic, characterized by a meticulously tight and symmetric mise-en-scene, understated emotion, rapid-fire dialogue, the visual style of a children’s book yet to be written, is perfected to the point of overstatement. In the hands of most directors, the film’s heavy subject matter—murder, prison breaks, Europe on the brink of fascism, loyalty, and the fragility of humanity—would have been too heavy to romp through. But not for Wes Anderson. The over-stylized caricatures that furnish the film’s moving parts are not aesthetic flourishes, but necessities.
If we can suspend our disbelief to speculate, present day Zubrowka probably has its Ivan’s Childhood, Rome Open City, and Die Brücke. The wickedness of the fascist occupation of Zubrowka is not undocumented in this world, but the writer of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is not given that story; he is given memories. As in the quintessentially Wes Anderson moment where we see Zero hiding metal digging tools inside delightful pastel-colored pastries, the gravity of the evil times and the flaws of the protagonists are buried beneath layers of memory.
“The dullest of us knows how memory can transfigure,” says C.S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm, “how often some momentary glimpse of beauty in boyhood is a whisper, which memory will warehouse as a shout.” The memories of The Grand Budapest are being passed down over dinner from Zero Mustafa to the writer, and from the writer to us. The resurrecting work of memory has run its course, twice. There is no trivializing the horrors of the Zig Zags (clearly the SS) or the fate of the films several causalities—there is only human memory. That same human memory is as likely to remember a kind gesture, the smell of a stranger’s perfume, or the ribbon on an elegant package as it is the rages of war, injustice, and misfortune.
“Don’t talk to me of the ‘illusions of memory,’” Lewis tells us; “why should what we see at the moment be more ‘real’ than what we see from ten years’ distance?” Anderson gets this in The Grand Budapest Hotel; he understands that he isn’t making a film set in 1932 Zubrowka, but set in the memories of Zero as Zero passes them on to the writer. The world Anderson creates is not yet rid of the sins of murder and injustice, but their sting has already been removed. While the tyranny and tragedy that propel the stories originally caused them to be “sown in corruption,” through memory these same stories are “raised in incorruption.”
Without this framework, the film can be taken as a morally bankrupt and even nihilistic affair. But Wes Anderson is no nihilist—he loves his deeply flawed characters enough to portray them in earnest, and to resurrect their failures and strengths into a world wonderfully redeemed yet substantially realistic.
Wes Anderson’s over-the-top Wes Anderson–ness serves a similar purpose to Terrance Malick’s disjointed narrative in The Tree of Life, giving tangibility to emotional reality. Malick’s memories are as disjointed as our own memories, resurrected internally. The Grand Budapest resurrects 1932 Zubrowka through Zero’s memories channeled through the writer’s aesthetic and imposed chapter structure, and it builds the film from the later memories of the writer.
In this tale’s telling, the Grand Budapest is no longer objective—it’s myth. And as Lewis reminds us in The Pilgrim’s Regress, myth is “truth, but not fact: an image, not the very real.” The myth of The Grand Budapest is nostalgic but not false. If Anderson were to tell the story through the eyes of M. Gustave it would be much darker—the Zig Zags much more sinister, prison much less pleasant, and the Grand Budapest much less majestic.
In Anderson’s pleasantness there are hints of our own resurrected memories, of the times sown in difficulty and uncertainty that are raised in our minds with fondness and nostalgia. The Grand Budapest Hotel has a distinct longing for Lewis’s “resurrected nostalgia,” encouraging us that maybe the trials of the here-and-now will, in time, be raised in our hearts like Zero’s Grand Budapest.