Leave it to Wes Anderson to make a film about World War II without mentioning Germany. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, a wundercabinet set in the fictitious Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka circa 1932, Anderson captures the collapse of a kingdom and rise of a reich without so much as an SS on a lapel. Here, it’s a ZZ — short for the Zig Zag Division — a logo that looks so adorable engraved on martini shakers and ping-pong tables that you could almost, but not quite, forget that its adherents are going to destroy the world.
We’ve never seen a threat like the Zig Zags in Anderson’s films, which tend to be fastidiously wallpapered wombs where menchildren wrest with their delayed coming of age. At Anderson’s worst, the films are as narcissistic as The Darjeeling Limited, which was literally about rich white twerps making India’s working class deal with their baggage. Initially, Grand Budapest, too, appears to be one of his twee fantasies, opening with an animated funicular huffing up a mountain backdrop to arrive at the titular hotel. But with a blink, the image jumps from 1932 to 1968, and the building devolves from pink to drab. We realize that, for once, Anderson will let his airless snow globe be shaken and dropped, and in this case crudely glued back together by Communism, coyly referred to as the time of “common property.”
The Grand Budapest Hotel has the scope of a century. At the start, a modern punk visits the memorial of a great unnamed novelist. Quickly, we jump to 1985 and that author, played by Tom Wilkinson, reminiscing back two decades further still, to when he was young enough to be played by Jude Law, our handsomest character actor. Law plays the aspiring writer as a watchful insect, the Graspacious socialclimbereum of the weather-beaten hotel during its post-glory years. When Law sits down for supper with the mysterious Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the film once more leaps into the past to arrive at our main narrative: the story of how young Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori) ascended from the Grand Budapest’s Junior Lobby Boy-in-training under supreme concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) to owning the whole thing outright.
If you’re counting, Anderson is wrestling with four layers of fiction. It’s fitting: His characters have never sounded like real people, and now he has an excuse for paragraph-length monologues delivered without a blink. At these, Fiennes is brilliant. He understands that Anderson has a hard time distinguishing people from props, and plays Gustave as a bit of both, a self-created legend who strides around the hotel like the Fred Astaire of housekeeping.
Gustave is a fabulous contradiction, a sincere hustler who’s both fastidious and profane. Of his lovers, all dowagers getting their groove back at the Grand Budapest, he’s clearly shagging them for the cash. Still, he feeds their needs while proclaiming that their sagging flesh is “more flavorful.” Even here, in the past of the past of the past of the present, he’s a relic, an honorable man who so values protocol that he greets death squads with “How do you do?” (That said, occasionally, while in the middle of yet another speech on the value of civilization, he snaps and moans, “Aw, fuck it.”)
The thrust of the plot is Gustave’s efforts to prove he didn’t kill one of his heiresses (Tilda Swinton), a murder charge levied by her three tittering daughters and money-hungry son Adrien Brody, who, in his heavy black overcoat and crooked nose, stalks the film like Poe’s raven. But the emotional drama is Gustave’s struggle to keep order while chaos — personal and geopolitical — encroaches on his manicured fiefdom. Meanwhile, we’re all too aware that it’s futile: Soon, the whole thing will be blown to bits, and the generation after will have no use for gilded manners.
Anderson was inspired by the works of Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig, even dismissing his own script as “more or less plagiarism.” He’s selling himself short. Zweig died in 1942, a suicide who’d pulled up anchor in Vienna and fled to London then New York and, fatally, to Brazil after Hitler ascended to power. You won’t hear the word “Jewish” here, and Zweig was understandably more fatalistic. “Europe is finished, our world destroyed,” he lamented. But instead of offing himself with barbiturates, Anderson wants to celebrate the world that was, which is also, we suspect, the world he and his characters have always wished they lived in.
Grand Budapest is Anderson’s most mature film, and his most visually witty, too. It’s playful without being self-congratulatory, and somehow lush without being cloying in spite of its obsession with a bakery that cranks out only one pastry: a snowman-shaped confection with layers of pink, green, and cream. It’s dotted with absurd jokes I didn’t catch until a second viewing; say, a platter of duck that looks like roast pterodactyl. And both times I wanted to applaud the way cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman sneaks people like the villainous Willem Dafoe — a ghoul with skull-encrusted brass knuckles — into the shadows and then suddenly snaps them into focus.
For once, I’ll allow Anderson his fripperies. With Gustave, he’s made us sympathizers in his own fight for beautiful trifles, as though he sees his films as the frontline in the battle against crass, cash-in blockbusters. Like his doomed dandy, Anderson wants to resurrect the high-toned Hollywood filmmaking that perhaps never even existed. As Moustafa smiles of Gustave, at worst, people can say that these two nostalgists “sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”