Tuesday 12 August 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

“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 marvellous grace!" 
There is just something missing in everything, though you can’t put your finger on it, as if there has been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease has eaten away the previous period’s seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older. 
Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities 
In a completely counterintuitive move, Zweig came out and said, 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.  
The Telegraph: 'I stole from Stefan Zweig': Wes Anderson on the author who inspired his latest movie

Boy With Apple – a classic painting, valuable because it was made before the turbulent 20th century, while the Klimt is smashed out of frustration, as a valueless object that represents nothing that one of the protagonists of the film, M. Gustave, values, while the Schiele is used as a meaningless stand-in for something else, something that has appreciated value through the centuries. It’s the perfect art historical symbolism for the ideology of the characters that Wes Anderson, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, paints with so much care and love. Like the painting he admires, both for its classicism, its monetary value and the similarity of its subject to his own reflection, Ralph Fiennes’ concierge of the Grand Budapest, M. Gustave, without a backstory but rooted in a century that has ended, seems to be of a time that has passed already. While Klimt and Schiele, in their art, are attempting to grasp the century that they exist in, the Dutch classic represents the past, and so does M. Gustave.
The Grand Budapest Hotel wouldn’t be such an outstanding film if it didn’t back up its theory with a lot of heart. It is a tale of true friendship between two people who have been chased away from a time and place that they understand, who cling to arbitrary values that are about to be forgotten to create an artificial but comforting home. It’s also a tale about love – between the two orphans, Zero and Agatha, insisting that a love story is still possible in darkening times.
M. Gustave upholds the ancient values of the Grand Budapest Hotel, he is in control of the system, of the world that the travellers fall into once they become guests. Focusing on a hotel is a perfect choice, since nothing represents the severity of changing times more – the hotel depends on open borders, on the ability of its guests to cross frontiers. It is inherently an international place that offers the idea of home to people from many different places, an idea that becomes utterly obsolete once these borders are closed, once the idea of abroad, of across the border, becomes dangerous. The fragmentation of Europe, the increasing militarization, the closing of borders and minds, means an ending to the glory of the Grand Budapest, and therefore of the world that M. Gustave knows and exists in, as much as he tries to uphold these values against all odds. It is irrelevant whether he is genuine in his affections for his guests – the personal connections that he makes, the value he puts on these friendships of sorts – this is his ideology, how he insists the world must work in order to retain a sense of civilization. Once these connections become meaningless, once recalling personal favours is no longer something that is important, civilization has ended and barbarism reigns. He is a character not just out of the time he exists in – the 1930s, in Europe, in a film that explicitly only hints at the terrible things happening in Europe and rather focusing on the smaller headlines that its hero pays attention to – but also a character that doesn’t fit in with our time, since the way his world works is decidedly undemocratic. He exchanges personal favours for potential later gifts, for favours, for inheritances and small wealth. He sleeps with elderly guests  (“Rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, blonde, needy.”) in case they may remember him, writing their wills, which is exactly what happens when one of the guests dies suddenly, and under suspect circumstances – while her remote family gathers like vultures, ready to be fed what she has left behind, M. Gustave finds himself inheriting the one object that he values, a painting, but he also realizes that he has gotten caught up in a conspiracy that is slowly unfolding. A small personal tragedy, an adventure of sorts, that the film focuses on: a prison break, a villain, murders, dead cats – while the Europe in which all of this takes place subtly falls into darkness in the background. Anderson used the biography of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig as a blueprint for the film, and aspects of him are present in more than one character – he is M. Gustave, clinging to the old world that is about to expel him brutally, he is Zero, forced into exile by a brutal war and struggling to find a hold in a world that he does not quite understand, he is the writer, noting all of these stories down, he is perhaps even the hotel itself, changing through the years, turning from a famous, beautiful place into a dreary ruin once the very thing that it used to represent is no longer valued and rather considered decadent and old-fashioned. That sense of falling out of time, of a momentous change perhaps already having happened before the film even starts (an old empire having fallen apart, leaving its bits and pieces to try and make sense of themselves and failing, just waiting to be swayed by a much more sinister ideology that will cause so much destruction), is present in every moment of the film. There are two central scenes, working as parallels and juxtapositions. Once, Zero and M. Gustave travel across the borders with papers that aren’t quite right anymore for the ever-changing times they live in, but they get away with it because of a personal favour, a personal connection, owed to M. Gustave – the old system still works in his favour, the world he understands is still in place, at least as the nostalgic childhood memories of the man in charge – but later on, once the border police has been replaced by death squads, a bureaucratic short-coming can no longer be made up for through the system of favours and allegiance that M. Gustave put so much faith in in the past. The civilized world that he believed in so fundamentally, the system of rules of behaviour, of luxury, of being a concierge in a hotel, all these rituals are no longer of any value. That system gave him an anchor and it provided the same to Zero, a refugee from a war, but goodness and civilization can no longer prevail in an ideology like Nazism (Anderson never spells this out, but the way he tells that tell is perhaps more elegant and effective than the stories that do). Those made stateless by political circumstances no longer have anyone speaking for them, and both M. Gustave (perceived to be, in addition to having fallen out of time, as gay, and therefore completely at odds with the coming tide), and Zero, who will always be perceived as a stranger are utterly lost – if it weren’t for the friendship that binds them together, that works for such a long time as a civilizing panacea in a world that is no longer civilized. The Grand Hotel, like Europe itself, is merely an enchanting old ruin in the end, the illusion no longer sustain because the man who carried it within himself – the “faint glimmer of civilization in this barbaric slaughterhouse” - has been murdered, and all that is left is a story for a writer to tell.

2014, directed by Wes Anderson, starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Rohan, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux. 

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