illustration by Brianna Ashby
“You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant… oh, fuck it.” – Gustave H.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a live-action cartoon, and I say that with the utmost respect.
Children’s cartoons have always been vehicles for some pretty dark stuff. Often dismissed by adults due to a perception of simplistic storytelling and low-brow humor, animated movies and television shows have been a gateway into storytelling since they first came onto the scene in the early 20th century. Today we look to shows likeAdventure Time to show us the fun side of a nuclear apocalypse aftermath. A few years ago, Hey Arnold! dealt with themes as dark as alcoholism and the death of a parent. When I was a kid, I fell in love with Rocko’s Modern Life, a show about growing into adulthood with subversively dirty jokes and plotlines as incongruous to childhood as credit card debt. Yet shows like these are often overlooked by moms and dads who glance up from a newspaper (or, perhaps now, a tablet) and see only their soft, round edges and primary colors before quickly going back to whatever they were doing, not realizing their children are being introduced to many themes and situations far beyond their years.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. After all, children are able to process emotionally resonant material far more often than we give them credit for, so it’s likely a good thing to have them presented with these difficult concepts while they are still in an accessible place. There is a rule of developmental psychology that says that introducing something dangerous in the guise of something inherently appealing is a surefire way to make things more palatable for the psyche. Or, to put it more simply, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Turns out Mary Poppins was right all along.
In Wes Anderson’s latest (and, in my estimation, greatest) film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, everything is contained within something else. It is a meditation on memory, a rollicking jailbreak caper, a cat-and-mouse thriller, a coming-of-age tale, a highbrow comedy, a lowbrow comedy, a carefully constructed doll house. But, if I had to pick just one element that is emblematic of the entire film, I would point to the beautifully crafted pastries from Mendl’s Bakery. These delightful confections, called Courtesan au Chocolat, are tiered: three layers with sherbert-colored frosting, one piled on top of another. The three tiers recall the three timelines of the film: present-day, the 1960s, and the 1930s. (With a brief pit stop in the 1980s—let’s stretch the metaphor and call that the frosting.)
We open in the fictional land of Zubrowka, in modern-day, with a young girl walking down a street. Everything around her is dull and gray. She enters a small cemetery and finds a statue dedicated to an author decorated with hotel room keys. She pulls a key out of her purse, places it among the others, sits down next to it, and begins reading.
We are then introduced to the next timeline, wherein the author (Tom Wilkinson) regales us, from the 1980s, about his time spent at the legendary Grand Budapest Hotel. We flash back to the ‘60s where a younger version of the author (now played by Jude Law) is stopping through. The hotel, in this timeline, is soaked in a withering palette of oranges and browns and yellows, as if everything is in decay. Eventually he encounters a man he realizes is the owner of the building, Zero Moustafa, (F. Murray Abraham), who invites him to dinner so he can recall his own tale of how he came to own the hotel in the 1930s, during the hotel’s glory years.
Each of these three timelines are shot in a different aspect ratio, from the widest in present day, taking up the entirety of the screen, to a slightly smaller aspect ratio as we travel back in time, to the almost claustrophobic 1.33, traditionally used for television shows and computer monitors before the use of widescreen was more fully adopted. This stylistic choice is precise, and echoes the tiering of the cakes: large, medium, and small. But it’s the smallest bite, the top of the confectionary pile, that always makes the biggest impact. And so it is in this movie. As we go deeper into the rabbit hole that is memory, the more the events become almost cartoonishly warped. The aspect ratio, seen in widescreen, leaves large swaths of blackness on either side of the image, suggesting that there are holes missing in this retelling, gaps left unseen.
But that’s how memory works, isn’t it? The Grand Budapest Hotel is a treatise on what it means to remember, how the horrors of life can be made not only bearable but enjoyable when seen through the faulty filter of recollection.
When we finally arrive back at the chronological beginning of things, in the 1930s, we meet the younger Zero Moustafa—a young lobby boy (Tony Revolori) working in the beautiful Grand Budapest Hotel during its glory days. The drab colors of the Soviet Bloc have been replaced by baby blues and pastel pinks, regal purples and dramatic gashes of red. Every detail has been impeccably curated down to the finest detail thanks to its concierge, a man named Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes).
It has been widely accepted that Gustave H is a Wes Anderson man, one who clearly cares about the things that Wes Anderson appears to care about, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Yes, he believes that the finer things in life should be appreciated and that there is a certain dignity about having a sense of occasion. But he is also a man of conviction, who will stand up for what he believes in, even if he often can’t see much farther than the person standing in front of him. To Gustave, the fascism that is slowly creeping in all around him is not a pressing concern, not when there are guests to satisfy (in all meanings of the world). He lives for his job and the war means nothing to him aside from possibly making things a little more difficult in the off-season. It’s not until he takes Zero under his wing, becoming a mentor, that he gets a glimpse of the fall-out.
The engine of the movie that pulls these characters through is the death of a wealthy, elderly patron (Madame D)—a sometimes lover of Gustave—who confessed before departing on her last visit to the hotel that she feared for her life. Her fears are realized when she is found dead, and her death ruled a homicide. However, before her death she was able to bequeath a priceless painting to Gustave in her will. Her dastardly, murderous son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his even more dastardly, even more murderous assassin-on-retainer Jopling (Willem Dafoe) are both outraged, but Gustave is able to pluck the painting and flee before Dmitri is able to notice.
Gustave is eventually framed for Madame D’s murder and must escape jail with the help of his fellow inmates. He is hunted throughout the countryside of Zubrowka, with Jopling fast on his heels. The action here is fast and zany with miniature models standing in during large chunks of the action. Lopped off fingers drop to the floor with the weight and sound of Lincoln Logs, a ski chase through the countryside turns into a Merrie Melodies cartoon, complete with a fall off a cliff reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote. There is a weightlessness to these events, which is perhaps why some have been surprised that Anderson placed his cinematic caper in the shadow of a fascist takeover.
Although The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in a fictional universe, it is clearly meant to parallel ours: neither Zubrowka nor the fascist regime (“the ZZ”) that looms increasingly larger over the scope of the film ever existed, but looking at the countries irrevocably harmed by the invasion of the Nazis during World War II, one can see a clear link between Anderson’s fictional world and our own.
The Nazi stand-ins in The Grand Budapest Hotel are led locally by an officer named Henckls (Edward Norton) who, after an encounter on a train, initially begins to reprimand the paperwork- and power-less Zero. Gustave steps in—his superpower being his polite courtesy and his kind treatment of Henckls as a boyù and the ZZ allow them to pass. The ZZ in this film are simply depicted as benign officers with no emotional investment in the story. What Anderson shows us, through this soft depiction of the ZZ, is how easy it is to allow that kind of evil to seep into the edges of real life. As far as we see, they are not killing anyone, they are simply there to carry out their orders and enforce the law. Whether that law is ethical or not simply isn’t for them to decide. Adrien Brody, with his greasy black hair and sneering demeanor, and Willem Dafoe, with his brass knuckles and Terminator-esque tunnel vision, are easier to see as the villains of the tale. The more amorphous ZZ don’t seem to be as immediately threatening, though their presence grows increasingly more suffocating over the course of the film. Once Gustave returns to the hotel after his stint in jail, he is horrified to see that their banners have overtaken the hotel, a glimpse of things to come.
It seems as if the way people actually processed World War II has been warped over the ages. We have seen interpretations of interpretations until we are left with overly-sentimentalized distortions. The way people saw World War II during its own era was through a battling war of propaganda. Even in America there were several anti-Nazi propaganda films, like when Donald Duck was a Nazi or when Bugs Bunny undermined Hitler. Cartoons could say what mainstream entertainment could not. As a result, people often processed the atrocities of war through these mediums. Children who saw these cartoons while growing up came to accept that Nazis were simply villains, laughable cretins. I would argue that The Grand Budapest Hotel, for all its wisecracks and zany plots, is a beautifully preserved take on World War II that depicts how a certain class of people remember it. Zero himself is a victim of the horrors of large-scale violence, a refugee who saw the execution of his family during an uprising. And yet, that’s not the story he chooses to tell. He chooses to tell the story of the period in his life where he felt the most alive and free, where he found a true friend and married the love of his life, a girl with a birthmark on her face in the shape of Mexico.
Memory is a choice at a certain point, isn’t it?
To some, The Grand Budapest Hotel and its careful editing around the violent horrors of World War II seems to make light of the war’s atrocities. However, I would argue that, like the pastries that are used to disguise the tools Gustave uses to escape the prison, Anderson is disguising his real message in the shape of something lighthearted and beautiful. Although his movie is entertaining and funny, he is still making a very specific play on the nature of memory and storytelling. Like the children’s cartoons that disguise deeper messages often lost on adults, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a caper that masks a larger commentary on the insidious nature of fascism. It is seen in what is not seen, blurred by the black bars on either side of the screen. Memory makes it tolerable, even entertaining, because that is often the only way we are able to consume the horrors of the past.
Michelle Said was one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room, and later served as media director and podcast host. She currently freelances and works on her novel in New York.