My sequential gasps of delight at The Grand Budapest Hotel were not shared by my companion, whose gaze often wandered to the nearest EXIT light. “But didn’t you get it?” I insisted as we walked out. “The girl with the book visiting the author’s statue, the three old men in black on the bench, reprised later by the three creepy sisters in black, the crippled shoeshine boy, Serge’s sister with the clubfoot, the doggerel poetry, the greedy, villainous son and that wonderful, huge oil of a black boar at the reading of Madame D’s will?”
“No,” she said.
And that’s when I realized that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a writer’s movie. And probably not just any writer’s, but only those who’ve read so long and so widely among classic popular fiction, children’s tales, comic books, plays and poetry extending back to the Victorian Era as to see the wonderful mash-up of literary tropes that the movie is. I felt compelled to write a guide.
In the opening scene a young woman dressed for the 1940’s and carrying a book enters the ramshackle gates of the “Lutz Cemetery” somewhere in a fictional, lost, middle-European country. Three old men in black sit, staring straight ahead, on a bench. And right away we know that what follows will be magical, mythical. Because, you know, three? The Triple Goddess, the Christian Trinity, the three witches of Macbeth, the three pigs, billy goats gruff, bears and wishes traditionally offered in tales the world over? Three is a dead giveaway; a tale is coming!
The young woman hangs a hotel room key on a bronze bust of a man in round, wire-framed glasses. Other keys adorn the figure, which is labeled merely, “Author.” (It is actually (sort of) a likeness of Stefan Zweig, a world-famous author of the pre-WWII era, which absolutely nobody would know but which is terribly significant.) She sits and opens a book entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ah, the tale will be about a hotel, but not a Hyatt or a Hilton; these are too banal for the symbolic foreshadow already cast over the opening idea. This hotel will mean something far beyond mere hostelry.
Next we see the author in a seeming filmed interview, trying to tell the story behind the book while a child, presumably his son dressed in a sort of military-school tunic, disrupts him by shooting a toy gun. Children are always harassing authors who are trying to work, but the tunic and the toy gun? More foreshadowing. The hotel’s tale will be broken by war.
And at last we arrive at that 19th century literary convention, the Tale Told to a Traveler. The author (Jude Law), suffering from “scribe’s disease” (characterized by a need for solitude familiar to all writers), has taken, in 1968, refuge in the now-derelict hotel that was in the 20’s and 30’s the epitome of gracious accommodation. There he meets (in the hotel’s crumbling baths, probably a subtle tribute to the bisexual ambiguity of the story’s hero) an elderly, lonely man, Zero Moustafa, the faded hotel’s owner. Zero, a lobby-boy in the hotel’s heyday, tells the author the story that will become the book that will become the movie.
Zero, a child-refugee from a fictional war-torn desert country, was the protégé of the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). But it is the fussy, elegant, whimsically politic M. Gustave whose character must bear the weight of an era we, and possibly he, can only imagine as a literary conceit. A wealth of literary conceits, actually.
Don’t miss the crippled newsboy, the frequent Dr. Zhivago-esque trains against snowy landscapes, a funicular, singing monks, covert sexual encounters, an empty and eerily-lit museum, several murders, including the signature (and never-solved,
but see if you can catch that single, mysterious shot of a bottle of cyanide) murder of 84-year-old Madame Celine de Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis. (“Desgoffe” is the name of a French painter in whose style the movie’s pivotal “Boy with Apple” is painted, and “und Taxis” is the terminal element of an ancient and aristocratic German family’s compound surname, probably chosen just because it sounds so off-the-wall to English speakers.) Enjoy the painstakingly made-in-miniature hotel’s façade and its dramatic interior (shot in an abandoned German department store). But don’t try to trace the provenance of the “romantic” poetry M. Gustave recites at dramatic moments (“If this then be the end…” as he hangs by his fingernails over a bottomless, frozen crevasse). There is no provenance; it’s all just charming nonsense.
But despite the delightful tangle of familiar plotlines and the handsomely classic story-within-a-story-within-a-story, The Grand Hotel Budapest leaves one (or at least left me) with an odd nostalgia, a curious sense of something lost. The obscenely wealthy of my time seem crass and uninteresting. They pretend no standard to which anyone would attain. So despite the facts that I know perfectly well 98% of the population of Europe had no access to grand hotels and within that 98% all women were crushed by patriarchal cultural constraints, it’s still oddly nice to imagine the confection – a world of elegance, the arts, courtesy.
For some, maybe there was such a world. Stefan Zweig, on whose novels The Grand Budapest Hotel was vaguely based and whose ghost may be seen in M. Gustave, was such a one. Zweig lived in Vienna a cultured life, writing learned biographies and world-acclaimed novels. Fleeing Hitler, he moved to London, then New York. There in 1941, at a huge PEN fete celebrating his work, thousands of writers in attendance were stunned when he opened his remarks with these words quoted from an NPR interview with Zweig biographer George Prochnik: “I’m here to apologise before you all. I’m here in a state of shame because my language is the language in which the world is being destroyed. My mother tongue, the very words that I speak, are the ones being twisted and perverted by this machine that is undoing humanity.”
Zweig’s world wasn’t the goofball literary buffoonery of the movie, but the writer’s world that lies behind it. That world of art and letters, of depth and subtlety, was annihilated by Nazism. Writer Stefan Zweig, unable to endure the shattering horror born in his own language, committed suicide only months after his speech at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. I would be born two months later, and would remain unaware of Stefan Zweig until two days ago, researching a movie. I hope you’ll see it, and understand the meaning of a young woman with a book, hanging the key to a forgotten hotel on the statue of a bookish author.