More than perhaps any other director, the work of Ernst Lubitsch has been the most noticeable influence on Wes Anderson’s style. Though the great German-American writer-director, most prolific in the 1930s and 1940s, was never quite so aesthetically bold in the look of his sets, he too was preoccupied with meticulous staging for comedy within his chosen locales, be they the titular Shop Around the Corner or the Parisian hotel of Ninotchka; The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a fictional European country, the Republic of Zubrowka, another Lubitsch trait from works like The Merry Widow and The Love Parade, though The Shop Around the Corner happens to be set in the city Anderson’s mountaintop lodging house takes its name from. He garnered the descriptor of ‘the Lubitsch touch’ thanks to the moving sincerity that always made itself evident within even his more broad comedic premises, and Anderson’s own best work is that in which a recognisable humanism always makes itself known and potent even within the stylised stiltedness through which most of his characters are written and performed.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was previously Anderson’s most aesthetically vivid live-action feature, and one that did not quite pull off the delicate balance between his minutely detailed world building and emotional poignancy. In contrast to that effort from ten years prior, The Grand Budapest Hotel sees Anderson produce his most narratively and visually eccentric film to date, and arguably his funniest, while still managing to maintain that devastating wistfulness used to such great effect in the relatively stripped-down Moonrise Kingdom.
The film has a Russian doll structure, opening with a young woman in the now former republic of Zubrowka contemplating the nation’s most famous author, immortalised in a statue. This brief introduction seemingly takes place after the 1980s, as we then cut to 1985 in which the author in question (Tom Wilkinson) begins to tell the story of how, as a younger man, he visited the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. His younger incarnation (Jude Law) encounters the owner, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells him, over dinner, how he came to the hotel in 1932, amidst the glory years of the institution as overseen by the famed concierge M. Gustave (a magnificent Ralph Fiennes). Different aspect ratios are used to separate the film’s main three timelines: 2.35:1, 1.85:1, and 1.33:1, the latter being deployed for the majority of the film.
Young Zero (Tony Revolori) forms a friendship with Gustave, the “most liberally perfumed man” he ever encountered, while under his tutelage as a lobby boy. He forms an attraction to Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who works at a nearby patisserie, while Gustave’s own romantic (or at least just sexual) concerns involve various aged patrons of the hotel, including the 84 year old Madame D. News arrives of Madame D’s apparent murder, and Gustave, to the outrage of the deceased’s son (Adrien Brody), is left her most valuable painting, one worth millions. Madame D’s butler (Mathieu Amalric) helps Gustave get the painting off the premises while the family contest the situation at the will reading, but then later seems to suggest he witnessed Gustave on the premises when Madame D was murdered. Despite war scares, Zero, Gustave and their various cohorts embark on an adventure throughout Zubrowka and the surrounding territories, looking to find out the truth behind the murder and restore Gustave’s name.
Before the ‘Directed by’ credit comes at the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel, there is a card that denotes the film’s inspiration from writer Stefan Zweig. On a literary front, one can also observe aesthetic influences from Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin and the sensibilities of a particular style of European comics at large. There are also allusions to Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame De and Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, both in explicit aspects of the script (the name of the doomed Madame D., and a reworking of one of Blimp’s most famous lines concerning war and midnight) and general cinematic spirit. It is a mark of Anderson’s talents that a coherent, unique vision of his own remains clear above all else. Despite all the intertextuality within it, including paying tribute to a specific writer in the credits, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an Anderson film through and through, deepening his established themes and preoccupations while also exploring new territories, as all his films have progressively done despite what many may claim otherwise in an often facile fashion.
In indulging in mini-pastiches within the grand pastiche that is his Budapest Hotel, Anderson creates the closest thing to an overt genre film in his career, or, rather several little genre films that somehow connect together seamlessly. Among these, the prison break film gets a spotlight through sequences in which one protagonist must escape prison with the aid of balding, grizzled convicts, Austrian star Karl Markovics and Harvey Keitel among them, the latter amusingly covered in tattoos that look like the handiwork of a young child.
Another key set-piece concerns one supporting player stalked across town and eventually into a museum by Willem Dafoe’s frightening thug. The reliance on shadows and the sound of footsteps recalls film noir pursuits, though Dafoe’s fanged bottom teeth and the blackly comedic way in which the chase ends bring to mind the actor’s role in Shadow of the Vampire, and subsequently Murnau’s Nosferatu. Even when knowing in advance that the plot concerns some murder, The Grand Budapest Hotel proves a surprisingly gory and violent affair at times, though some of Anderson’s best scenes in his previous films have been when blood abruptly intrudes his frames.
Ends both abrupt and foreshadowed are of recurring significance throughout the film. The older version of Zero, now a solitary figure, makes near-immediate reference in his storytelling to how he finds it difficult to discuss Agatha, while the very nature of the film’s narrative structure suggests a fall from grace for both the hotel and the briefly famed figures that would preside within it. There are, of course, also the various developments regarding the European conflict, which can only remain in the fringes for so long before they disrupt, though as the older Zero asserts regarding Gustave, people have marvellous ways of maintaining the illusion of their world having not vanished. Fitting with that, the reason for Zero maintaining the establishment of faded glory after so many decades is that he and the one he most cared for were happy there, if only for a little while.
— Josh Slater-Williams
The UK premiere of The Grand Budapest Hotel was the opening gala of the 10th Glasgow Film Festival. Visit the festival’s official website here.