“We were happy here, for a little while”: Thoughts on THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

(Spoilers ahead) I once mentioned to a friend that the air in Europe feels different. It’s denser than air in the United States, heavy but sweet. I thought it might be Europe’s northern latitude, the different kinds of trees and plants, or maybe that the barometric pressure affected my sinuses. Then my friend, sort of a Continental person in her own right, stopped me and said, “It’s because the air in Europe is full of memory.”

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL captures that feeling of tangible memory. The movie is hilarious, suspenseful, and even violent, but every scene is cast in a precious haze. Most of the movie is an extended recollection. Ralph Fiennes is Gustave H., a concierge at the center of a caper in the fictional European country of Zubrowka, ca.1932. Decades later, an author (Jude Law) converses at the run-down hotel with F. Murray Abraham’s character, owner of a vast fortune and a “lively…but deeply alone” face.

It’s the perfect subject matter for director Wes Anderson, who sometimes draws fire for trading “real” emotion in favor of delicate set-pieces, symmetrical frames, etc. But Anderson, a nostalgic if there ever was one, has been on a hot streak lately. BUDAPEST–a love letter to Old Europe—is a good fit for his style of film making. With its quick cuts, pans, and jerky motions of the characters, the movie comes off as a hybrid between a stop-motion fantasy and “real-life.” It’s a true delight filmed inside a cuckoo clock.

Gustave and his protégé, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), race all over Zubrowka – a country full of alpine mountains, haunted estates, and all classes of rail-cars. While the movie takes place all over this fantastical country, the Grand Budapest Hotel represents all that was elegant and humane about pre-war Europe. To crib from my favorite Wes Anderson movie, the Grand Budapest is Gustave and Zero’s Rushmore. After Zero fails to impress Gustave with a spotty resume (Zero is on a trial period at the hotel pending Gustave’s approval), Gustave asks why he even wants work as a lobby boy. Zero answers honestly – “Who wouldn’t…at the Grand Budapest, sir? It’s an institution.” A slow smile spreads across Gustave’s face. He’s found a kindred soul. Later, distraught after insulting Zero, Gustave reaches for the proper words to convey his regret. He sputters, “This is…this is…below the standards of the Grand Budapest!” As Zero says later in the movie about Gustave, the two “shared a vocation,” less of a job and more of an identity rooted in a specific time and place.


Ralph Fiennes is perfect in his comic timing and easy switches between gentility and ribaldry. He also has a curious way of movement. I don’t think anyone in Hollywood runs more hilariously than he does. The rest of the cast, with many of the usual Anderson regulars, seem like they’re enjoying all of the madcap situations. There are jailbreaks, high-speed chases, men posing as priests, silhouetted leaps across rooftops. Zero and Agatha’s romance, especially as it relates to F. Murray Abraham’s character, is a gorgeous depiction of memory and loss. A lovely close-up of Saoirse Ronan tells you all you need to know about Zero’s depth of feeling, what kind of world he inhabits, and what he’ll have to endure over the rest of his life.

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The comedy and preciousness in BUDAPEST is definitely leavened with a certain amount of doom. We see some darkness on display and a high body count–I’m still struck by how violent this movie is. Anderson throws out familiar horror and thriller tropes to great effect –they’re not exactly as tongue-in-cheek as you might expect from him. A chase sequence between Jeff Goldbum and Willem Dafoe’s characters brought to mind a similar scene from the 1949 noir The Third Man. Gustave, Zero and Agatha encounter a death squad officer in a truly terrifying scene, especially if you’re familiar with the kinds of atrocities committed in the Eastern European killing fields. Evil is all around the edges of Gustave and Zero’s story.

This works precisely because Anderson has always yearned for something that is lost. In BUDAPEST, he doesn’t shy from depicting the forces that stole his characters’ golden period away. Gustave has a moment just before the last big action sequence, when he recites to himself a poem about the end of an era. The gray-coated fascists (I forget the Zubrowkan word for Nazis) have taken over the hotel. Gustave would rather never see his home again than see them tarnish it. Their arrival spells the end of Gustave’s elegant era, and I get the sense that Gustave foresaw this end coming. But Gustave must go inside his ruined home to complete the story.

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“His kind of world was gone long before he came into it. But he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”