Imagine going from “12 Years a Slave” to “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” That’s exactly what happened to production designer Adam Stockhausen, who was able to convey beauty in the darkest of dramas, but when it came to Wes Anderson’s witty caper, there was no holding back the Czech Republic eye candy: a pink hotel with a dollop of yellow butter cream, and the sugary Mendl’s bakery.
But then Stockhausen is no stranger to Anderson, having previously worked on “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” However, when he read the script for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” while still making Steve McQueen’s eventual Oscar winner in New Orleans, he immediately embraced the opportunity to partake in the Eastern European opulence.
“It’s bright, vivid, and poppy but not electric,” Stockhausen offers.
In tone, the movie’s a cross between Max Ophuls’ melancholy “The Earrings of Madame de” and the screwball antics of “The Wrong Box.” Ralph Fiennes plays Gustave H., a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and it involves the theft and recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting. But beneath the glossy surface lies the darker theme of trying to hold onto a bygone civilized ethos amid war, vulgarity, and degradation
In fact, the end credits read: “Inspired by the Writings of Stefan Zweig,” a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler (“La Ronde” and “Dream Story”), whose “Letter from an Unknown Woman” was adapted by Ophuls.
The production designer jumped right into the project by studying the Photochrome postcard collection at the Library of Congress, and once he joined the production in Gorlitz, the easternmost town in Germany, with its Renaissance period buildings, he was hooked.
“There are no ATMs or delis that are allowed to put signs up so it’s very pristine and gorgeous, and they could not have been more welcoming to us,” the New York-bred Stockhausen suggests. “We settled in there and found nooks and crannies to build sets.”
Indeed, you can instantly tell the handmade quality of an Anderson film, which bears the stamp of his stop-motion work with its stunning patchwork of designs, colors, fabrics, and decor. And Anderson discovered the little spa town of Karlovy Vary, which was perfect for the hotel up on the hill and the beautiful pastel town below.
The Grand Budapest was modeled after many Eastern European hotels, but the closest they came was the Grand Hotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. “We used bits and pieces cobbled together,” Stockhausen adds. “We were going for the onstage/backstage quality to the hotel that carries over to the rest of the film, including Mendl’s bakery.”
And speaking of handmade, Stockhausen made use of several miniatures (the hotel, the hillside, the funicular, the town, the Alpine observatory, the bobsled run and ski chase). “It’s fun — it has the right spirit and is appropriate to the time period. The opening sequence is comprised of several miniatures in different scales patched together later. You can tell they’re there but I hope they’re not distracting.”
Then there was the old prison that they found in Saxony for a bleaker sequence. It now is empty and awaiting museum status. “They allowed us to work there and they even let us put a hole in the floor for the start of the escape.
Of the storytelling, Stockhausen adds, “One of my favorite things about the film is the introduction of the narrator (Tom Wilkinson). At first, it feels like a framing device, but then when you return to it at the end of the film it has this wallop.”
And it ties in thematically with its “La Ronde”-like merry-go-round quality that’s not only Ophulsian but also indicative of Anderson’s reverence for old-fashioned virtues and romantic pursuits. For Stockhausen, it was certainly an innervating experience to return to this bygone era.