In his book “The Wes Anderson Collection,” Matt Zoller Seitz talks about Anderson’s use of what he calls “material synecdoche,” which he defined in a 2009 article as “showcasing objects, locations, or articles of clothing that define whole personalities, relationships, or conflicts.” In psychological realism, we look inside characters to get a sense of who they are, but in Anderson’s world, those details are on the outside. His characters actually wear their hearts on their sleeves.
That holds true, as it turns out, for Anderson’s films as well as the characters within them. “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” builds to an encounter with the mythical crayon ponyfish, a flagrantly fake Plasticine creation that is nonetheless surpassingly beautiful — a neat summary of Anderson’s films, whose overt artifice doesn’t prevent them from being profoundly moving (at least when they work). In “Moonrise Kingdom,” the runaway teenage lovers cement their bond by piercing the girl’s ears with a pair of fishhooks earrings — a stand-in for deflowering that nonetheless draws real blood.
In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the old-world aesthete M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) engineers a prison break by smuggling in digging tools disguised as elegant, oddly shaped pastries. The guards destroy other, less visually appealing foodstuffs in order to check for hidden contraband, but even they’re not immune to the pristine beauty of a Mendl’s pastry. Critics, for the most part, focus on the pastry, the immaculate, self-conscious beauty of Anderson’s movie: its dollhouse sets, its painstakingly composed shots, its stylized comic performances. But I want to focus on the hammer, the cold and surprisingly powerful force beneath “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” dazzling surface.
The world of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a flagrantly artificial one, both physically and world-historically. The buildings in Anderson’s invented country of Zubrowska look like two-dimensional dioramas, evoking the theatrical illusion of the 19th century and the cinematic wonderments of George Melies, right down to the hand-tinted colors. The 1932 time frame in which most of the movie’s action is set ties it to the rise of Nazi Germany, whose iconography is echoed by the jagged double-S of the troops who eventually take over Gustave’s beloved hotel; the striped uniform Gustave wears in prison evokes the garb of Nazi concentration camp inmates. But Anderson also steals from the first World War as well as the second, compressing the first half of the 20th century into a single, world-altering conflict.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” 1932 is the innermost in a series of temporal and narrative frames. In 1968, the hotel’s erstwhile lobby boy and current owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) tells the story of M. Gustave to a young writer (Jude Law). In 1985, that writer’s older self (Tom Wilkinson) retells the story to a camera in his office, presumably a metaphor for the writing of a novel. Finally, in an undated, presumably present-day, frame, a young woman in what appears to be a former Eastern Bloc country visits a shrine devoted to the now-deceased writer, and sits down to read his book — called, of course, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” (In a neat parallel, the Brutalist revamp of the Grand Budapest’s interior was built on top of its gilded exterior, then peeled away once the 1968 scenes had been shot.) As I’ve written previously, these time periods tie the movie to three major shifts in the European balance of power: World War II, the Prague Spring, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Anderson never lets us forget that these frames are constructed. The three main time periods are shot in different aspect ratios: boxy 1.33:1 for the 1932 scenes; Cinemascope 2.35:1 for the 1960s; widescreen 1.85:1 for 1985 and the present day. The first two are presented within a 1.85 frame, as they would be if you were watching them on a flatscreen TV, and even the 1985 scenes are pulled in from the edges so that they don’t fill the screen; none of them gives us the complete picture. The writer’s direct address to the camera in 1985 is the least overtly stylized, but his monologue is interrupted by a young boy with a toy pistol, and when the writer shoos him out of the door, the camera swivels and we catch a glimpse of workmen in the next room, painting the walls a pale pink. Like the others, his frame remains a work in progress.
Such self-aware aestheticism is the manna on which Anderson’s admirers feed, but in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” it has a specific, decidedly un-frivolous purpose. M. Gustave isn’t simply a prissy nostalgist, a Belle Epoque throwback pining for a world that “had vanished long before he ever entered it.” His insistence on elemental decency, his mantra that anger is merely the expression of needs unmet, is a subtle form of resistance — tinged, it must be said, with a hint of willful denial. At times, his insistence on maintaining decorum in the face of chaos evokes history’s whipping boy Neville Chamberlain.
Like many a member of an oppressed people, M. Gustave uses charm to work the system, which has allowed the Grand Budapest Hotel to function as an island of stability in an increasingly tumultuous world. But as the situation worsens and cultivated soldiers like Edward Norton’s Henckels are replaced by jackbooted thugs, Gustave begins to lose his grip. The only time the word “fascist” escapes his lips — the only time it’s uttered at all — is when he fails to sweet-talk his way past the border patrol who want to detain the “stateless” Zero (Tony Revolori) for failure to produce the correct papers. Henckels, who with Norton’s flat American accent appears on the scene like a poorly cast extra, saves Zero from likely internment and execution, but Gustave has been shown that the power he’s accumulated, and the fantasy he’s tried to sustain, have their limits. He tries to reassert both with an impromptu poetry recitation, but he finally gives up: “Oh, fuck it.” The confrontation is reprised at the end of the 1932 story, with results so dire the film cannot bear to depict them.
The physical dissimilarity between Revolori, a 17-year-old Guatemalan-American, and the 74-year-old Abraham, whose heritage is Syrian, further emphasizes the movie’s constructed nature, but it also gives the reference to Zero’s statelessness a frightening edge, one that’s honed when he reveals to Gustave that he fled to Zubrowska after his family was killed during a war in his native country. In the age of drone warfare, the image of global powers fighting each other with masses of troops seems unfathomably distant, but the idea of innocents being massacred by an invading power cuts all too close to home.
Ignoring such moments of rupture while cooing over Anderson’s manicured frames is the equivalent of praising the pastry but ignoring the hammer. It’s the combination of the two that gives “The Grand Budapest Hotel” its melancholy power.