Wes Anderson is known for meticulously crafting beautiful onscreen worlds, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most beautiful yet. Previously in this series I've looked at Birdman and Boyhood, both movies that required not only extraordinary vision of their directors, but also precise execution. The Grand Budapest Hotel didn't take 12 years to make like Boyhood, and it wasn't filmed to look like one unbroken shot like Birdman, but it belongs in the same category of achievement for conjuring a world that feels so authentic while being so openly contrived. Even when we see the seams of Wes Anderson's work, we never doubt its authenticity.
So much is happening in The Grand Budapest Hotel I didn't feel like I totally grasped all of it even after a third and fourth viewing. Fortunately there's a new book out by TV and movie critic Matt Zoller Seitz that dives deep into the film, revealing far more than I could ever touch upon here. (Here's the Amazon link.) I got to speak with Seitz about his book recently, which helped bring focus to my thoughts, and I've referenced both his book and the interview throughout the article below.
Let's dig in.
#1. It All Starts with Stefan Zweig
The Grand Budapest Hotel is not exactly an adaptation, but it borrows large swaths of material from Stefan Zweig’s work. So who was Stefan Zweig? He was an Austrian author whose work was both tragic and fanciful. The DNA of his literary world runs through the dialogue, scenes, settings, and characters of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Zweig himself served as an inspiration for the movie's Author (Old and Young), and as a model for M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). In a 2014 interview with Zweig biographer George Prochnik, Anderson explained how he came to know of the author.
"I had never heard of Zweig — or, if I had, only in the vaguest ways — until maybe six or seven years ago, something like that, when I just more or less by chance bought a copy of Beware of Pity. I loved this first book, and immediately there were dozens more in front of me that hadn’t been there before. They were all suddenly back in print. I also read the The Post Office Girl, which had been only published for the first time recently. The Grand Budapest Hotel has elements that were sort of stolen from both these books."
As a writer, Zweig was interested in Europe and saddened by the vast destruction brought by the two World Wars. Born Jewish on his mother's side, Zweig fled Austria in 1934 with his second wife, Lotte Altmann. They lived in London, then New York, before moving to Petrópolis, Brazil, where Zweig finished his autobiography, The World of Yesterday. The two killed themselves with a barbiturate overdose the day after he sent the manuscript for the memoir to his publisher. It was February 22, 1942, making Sunday's Oscars the 72nd anniversary of his death.
It's easy to see elements of Zweig's nostalgia for the past in Ralph Fiennes' M. Gustave, and in Anderson's confectionary world. If you're interested in reading some of the author's work, Seitz recommends starting with that memoir.
"I started with The World of Yesterday, and I’m glad I did because it gives you insight into his life and his mental state, and I feel like it’s a good grounding document for his fiction," Seitz said. "The second thing I read was Confusion, which made a very strong impression on me, and that’s something that has a structure that’s very similar to the structure of the The Grand Budapest Hotel. Those would be the two that I start with."
#2. Wes Anderson Basically Made the Movie Twice
Most movies are planned by creating storyboards, but few are so carefully planned that the filmmaker makes, essentially, an animated version of the movie before starting. For The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson's animatics were so detailed that Jeff Goldblum says he knew exactly what he was getting into.
"He had, I think developed from having done Fantastic Mr. Fox, an animated version of the movie," Goldblum told The Wrap. "It was a beautifully animated version of the whole movie, with all the cuts as they pretty much I think wound up to be. And he voiced all the characters. He called it animatics. I had it on my computer, you could see the whole movie."
For curious fans, pictures of Anderson's rough hand-drawn storyboards as well as the more polished animatics appear in Seitz' book. Seitz says Anderson fully "previsualizes the films he makes," to the point of knowing the music he plans to use in various scenes. While this level of planning allows him to save time when he's setting up shots and plotting out days of shooting, it doesn't magically make the actual takes any easier.
"Everybody who's in the shot, including the extras, has to hit extremely specific marks," Seitz said. "Otherwise they're not going to be in the frame, or they're not going to be where they need to be in the frame. That requires rehearsal. So what he needs is people who are very very precise with their bodies — very very graceful, and don't need a whole lot of rehearsal to get it right. Because his movies, despite being very handsome looking, do not tend to be very expensive."
#3. Agatha Wasn't Underwritten, She Was Omitted
Near the end of the movie, the Young Author (Jude Law) asks Zero (F. Murray Abraham) if he keeps the Grand Budapest because of its connection to M. Gustave. Zero surprises him and the audience by saying, "No, I keep it for her." Her, of course, is Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and her importance to the film is realized all at once as Zero finishes his story by summarily relating the loss of Agatha and their infant son to "the Prussian grippe." At first, it might seem like Agatha's being given criminally short shrift in the script, but take another look.
"I've read a number of otherwise positive reviews that say the relationship between Zero and Agatha is underwritten," Seitz said in our interview. "It's not underwritten. It's omitted. It's like Zero's telling the Author, 'I'm going to tell you everything about myself, but there's a couple of things I'm going to hold onto and you can't have them.'"
Seitz continued: "It is entirely intentional that he doesn't dwell on the death of Gustave, and he doesn't dwell on the death of Agatha and the child. The death of Gustave gets six words: 'In the end, they shot him.' And the death of Agatha and the child is dispensed of, I believe, in three sentences with a joke."
#4. The Movie Is About the Holocaust
While The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in the fictional European nation of Zubrowka, and it exists in a fantasy universe, it's clearly referencing the buildup to World War II as Hitler rose to power and prepared to change history. In an essay written for The Atlantic, former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Repbulic Norman L. Eisen writes meaningfully about how The Grand Budapest Hotel is "one of the smartest and most sophisticated movies ever made about both the causes of the Holocaust and its consequences."
Anderson consulted Eisen before making the film, and Eisen says he was initially dubious of a filmmaker who wanted to make a comedy that would mine Europe's most tragic time period for laughs. But after speaking with Anderson, he championed his cause, and now that the movie has been made, he couldn't be more impressed.
Eisen points out that the film's characters are "a warm tribute to the three main populations targeted by the Nazis." The openly bisexual Gustave stands in for the gay men placed in concentration camps by the Nazis. Zero, whose family was killed in his village, represents the ethnic minorities persecuted during the Holocaust. Finally, the Jewish Deputy Kovacs is chased down and killed by the murderous Jopling.
The parallels don't end there. Adrien Brody plays Dmitri, whose ZZ officers are a reference to the Nazi SS officers. And he's chiefly concerned with tracking down and stealing a painting that doesn't rightfully belong to him, referencing the Nazis' well-documented art theft.
#5. It's Darker the Second Time Around
The first time you see The Grand Budapest Hotel, it's easy to get caught up in the madcap hijinks, and just enjoy the movie. The darkness is there, but it's masquerading as quirkiness, so it's easy to dismiss. The second time you watch it, that "enchanting old ruin" is a scarier place. You start to think more about all the death that's dealt with so off-handedly, such as Zero having "zero" family and Jopling throwing Kovacs' cat out the window.
Once you start looking for it, the darkness is everywhere, and Seitz says even after as many times as he's seen it, he still picks up on new things.
"In the preparation of this book I probably watched the movie somewhere between 20 and 30 times, and that's start to finish, not counting the times I needed to pull out a screenshot or something," he said. "Then the book goes to the printer, and you can't make anymore changes. And I'm sitting there at a screening and there's a scene where Gustave gives Agatha some flowers, and Zero, in his narration, says he gave her an arrangement of flowers in a box the size of a child's coffin. That's foreshadowing of what happens to Agatha and their child together. But it's one sentence. It's barely a sentence. It's foreshadowing and it's so subtle you don't even think of it as foreshadowing."
#6. Reinvention: Zero Means Zero
Wes Anderson's movies are littered with characters in the process of reinventing themselves, and The Grand Budapest Hotel might have more reinvention happening than any of his other movies. Zero's tragic past is barely alluded to, but his name is more than a coincidence. He's had to work his way up to the baseline his name implies.
"Zero tells you his story, which is he fled his home country," Seitz says of the lobby boy. "Members of his family were killed. He was imprisoned and tortured — village was destroyed. And his name is Zero. You know? How symbolic can you get?
"And Gustave: Even though you don't hear Gustave's backstory, it's pretty clear from the way he conducts himself that he's invented that persona. He talks like a very affected, upper-class type of person. But suddenly when he's not reciting poetry or delivering some sort of elegant monologue on the art of being a concierge, he'll suddenly be bursting out with this kind of gutter profanity. To me, that's the quote-unquote real Gustave, the guy who throws the F-word around with great aplomb."
#7. The Quote That Describes Gustave, the Author, Wes Anderson, and Stefan Zweig All at Once
As the older Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham, concludes the story he's telling to the Young Author, played by Jude Law, he finishes with a quote about M. Gustave. "To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it, but I will say: He certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!"
It's a profound and memorable quote that describes not only Gustave, but also the Author, who sustained the illusion still farther in his book. It is perhaps most meaningfully assigned to Stefan Zweig, who worked to sustain the illusion of the Europe he loved even as it fell apart before his eyes. But it's also applicable to Wes Anderson, whose movies are themselves marvelous illusions.
"It may be something where he inadvertently describes himself, or as he would like to be seen," Seitz said. "Or he might have been describing the artist from earlier eras who he admires and wants to emulate. Who knows? But I do know the films by the really confident directors often contain lines that suggest how they see themselves or how they would like to be seen. I don't think it's out of bounds to suggest that that line applies to Wes Anderson as well as Stefan Zweig and M. Gustave and probably to the Author as well."