Zero barely talks about his great lost love. As the “aged proprietor” of an “enchanted old ruin” known as the Grand Budapest Hotel, he tells his life story by skipping around her presence, touching on the existence of his “darling Agatha,” but avoiding falling into the pit of despair. Beautiful things don’t get to be completed in his world, where poems are always cut off, nice sentiments are interrupted, and the dark specter of war and disease cuts short any hope of living long, living with love. The man who “struck one as being, deeply and truly, lonely” knows what it is to lose.
For a brief time, Zero and Agatha shared a love. They were outcasts, ignored, working in service jobs that required self-abnegation—he as a hotel lobby boy; she, the pastry girl at a bakery. We see them in their bedrooms; it’s not much. “We did not have 50 Klubecks between the two of us,” recalls the older Zero. They worked long, demanding hours and had few moments to spare. Zero’s meals were held with the rest of the hotel staff. Agatha suffered the overbearing, watchful eye of her boss at the bakery, Herr Mendl. Being together was difficult, but the few moments they shared were rapturous. Their courtship felt like young love feels: furtive, secretive, and bursting with flushed emotion.
That young love never gets to mature. Agatha dies too early. “An absurd little disease,” the older Zero says parenthetically of the cause of death. So, every moment is preserved in amber, but never lingered on for too long. “She is a nearly absent presence in the story, by Zero’s choice: a narrative door marked ‘Do Not Enter,’” writes Matt Zoller Seitz, in his book about the movie. “He won’t speak of her. It’s too painful, and he’s too private.” But the aged Zero can’t tell his story without including her, try as he might. And we get glimpses.
On one good day, Zero and Agatha go to a carousel. They’re accompanied by Herr Mendl, but they barely notice. Zero gives his love a gift. He’s so anxious for her to like it, he can’t even wait for her to open the wrapping before he bursts out with what it is. He can’t contain his love in the inscription, either: “For my dearest, darling, treasured, cherished Agatha, whom I worship. With respect, adoration, admiration, kisses, gratitude, best wishes, and love.”
Throughout their courtship, the world around Zero and Agatha bursts at the seams with the portents of war, as newspapers tease, armies gather, and the brightly colored, idyllic world of the fictional state of Zubrowka teeters on the brink. The start of the war, after all, sees the appearance of black-clad death squads, and eventually, the draining of color from the film itself. Darkness and death loom quietly, but no matter what’s going on in the world, a first love is a first love. And it’s all encapsulated in a single image.
Agatha’s face takes up the center of the boxy frame—her gaze is transfixing. She stares lovingly, straight through the camera. We’re Zero, locking eyes with her. The colors shift over her face as carousel lights turn behind and around her. She is radiant, then shadowed, then red. She has the slightest hint of a smile, her head tilted, just so. Agatha stares with her deep blue eyes and it’s near-impossible to look away. But who would want to?
In this single moment, the music fades as if it’s playing somewhere else, the lights haze, as the focus can only be directed toward Agatha. Time is frozen, if only for a moment, as we experience the ecstasy of loving and knowing you are loved. Of early love, with its rushed heartbeats, tingling limbs, empty stomachs, stuttering lips, and sweaty brows. We hold onto this eternally familiar moment. As Italo Calvino once wrote, describing a different, frozen moment in time: “The suspicion that has gripped me is precisely this: that I have come to find myself in a space not new to me, that I have returned to a point where we had already passed by.”
* * *
The Grand Budapest Hotel continues a literary tradition that’s stretched from Dante to Moulin Rouge!: women die tragically and their lovers memorialize them in their writings. Agatha is an ideal, an image. Like Madeleine to Scotty in Vertigo (but less creepy), like the woman of an aged Mr. Bernstein’s tale in Citizen Kane (but more meaningful), Agatha exists as a memory or a reference.
With its frames within frames of shifting perspectives and aspect ratios, The Grand Budapest Hotel is distinctly literary. Its opening monologue is lifted nearly verbatim from Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig, an author whose work is credited with inspiring the film, whose mustache seems to appear on more than one character’s face, and whose disappearing world is fictionalized as the setting. Zweig’s non-fiction is a great example of the longing for a lost place; his fiction for lost people. In his novella Journey into the Past, Zweig chronicles the long-awaited reunion of a man and a woman who had once been deeply in love, years ago. “How much time, how much lost time, and yet in the space of a second a single thought took him back to the very beginning.”
Zweig’s stories are often framed as recollections told over, as stories shared with strangers because of their absolute meaningfulness—much like the memorializing by grieving lovers of literary tradition—because these memories needed to be stories, to be remembered by somebody else. Zweig’s framing characters look to create the literature of their own lived stories. Journey into the Past sees two characters, Ludwig and an unnamed woman, returning to their own story, with one seeking to consummate his unrequited love of nine years’ distance. They had had an emotional affair, tucked into passionate glances and tacit communication, years earlier, while her husband was alive. They kissed where they could, but they had to hide from the servants who always seemed to be around at the least opportune time. Ludwig’s desires were never fully satisfied and he was called away on business so he could build his fortune. And he and his love made a promise to be together once he’d return.
But the trouble with remembering love is that its amber glow sets up dangerous expectations. After being away far longer than he’d have liked to be, Ludwig is greeted fondly by the woman’s staff. He joins his love to the literary tradition and wonders to himself, as Zweig writes, “Odysseus…the household dogs recognize you, will the mistress of the house know you again too?” He’s been away for nine years. He’s gotten married, but he still returns for a rendezvous with the woman he loved and lost, to fulfill a promise she had made him, but which she realizes she cannot keep. Ludwig recalls a couplet from a French poem by Paul Verlaine: “In the old park, in ice and snow caught fast / Two specters walk, still searching for the past.” The poem, which cuts off there in Zweig’s story, imagines a dialogue between lost lovers:
—Does your heart still surge at my very name?
Do you still see my soul when you dream?—No.
—Ah, the beautiful days of inexpressible bliss
When our lips met!—It may have been so.
—How blue the sky, how hopes ran high!
—Hope has fled, vanquished, to the black sky.
Like Jay Gatsby or Mr. Bernstein or Lemony Snicket, wondering what might have been, Ludwig and Verlaine’s narrator and an old Zero romanticize their visions of love as time goes by.
“Any adequate view of nostalgia will acknowledge that it involves a felt difference between past and present: the very irretrievability of the past is salient in the experience,” wrote philosophy professor Scott Alexander Howard. We may seek to stay in the past through memory, Howard tells us, because the present seems worse, because we didn’t realize how good life was, or because we’re spontaneously overtaken by nostalgia. Nostalgia may mean that we see the past as a time that was better, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean that our vision of the past is false, it does mean that things get amplified to a whole other level:
The nostalgist knows the past in question was unpleasant at the time, but in memory it is altered by certain effects: for example, the memory has acquired a gold patina, or it seems to be an uncanny distillation of a whole time period. Neither effect strikes the self-aware nostalgist as true to the quality of one’s experiences at the time when those memories were encoded. Yet they are part of what is targeted by nostalgia. The emotion seems to be directed precisely at the “fictional” features of the memory image—things which one recognizes to be not inside the scene on the other side of the window, but drawn onto the glass.
That amber glow or gold patina grows as we distance ourselves from a disappeared world. Zero’s story, his world, his love are by definition irretrievable.
The carousel (in reality, a wood frame built around a camera setup) is irretrievable. The lights (in reality, constructed to be evocative more than representative) are irretrievable. The shared moment—stolen between long shifts of service as Herr Mendl looks on—is gone, and its memory is a fictionalized, amberized construction of nostalgia and longing.
As the elder Zero looks back, the once garishly pink and red hotel now looks like a holdover from Soviet-era architecture, its colors a drab collection of beiges and oranges. The grand ballroom holds few diners and the place, in general, is empty. Guests push their own elevator buttons, serve themselves from vending machines, and, at times, even retrieve their own keys.
And Agatha. Zero holds onto her memory, but reveals very little of it. She has 15 lines in the film’s screenplay. The first time we hear of Agatha, the older Zero avoids saying much, and talks of her only when he has to. It’s all gone and irretrievable. Sort of.
* * *
One cold November night at Penn Station, the poet Alandra Markman, then going by the pseudonym Allan Andre, wrote a poem for me and a friend (we missed our train, but the delay was worth it). “One nostalgia later” gave a compelling portrait of family meals, “as winter nights dissolve into warm / recollection and company we’re still keeping.” The way the poem goes, we create our nostalgia as we live through moments, readying our stories to be told and remembered some time later on. “Let every glow, mechanical or felt, be one / with the shadows we’re still casting, / and guide our bodies into greater light.”
The story of Zero and Agatha’s love was created on the carousel. In that moment, we see their love blossoming, deepening, exploding with the soft-focus lights of ecstasy. The elder Zero tells us he’s exercising restraint, avoiding talking about Agatha as much as he can, but if he were truly offering a utilitarian telling, there’d be no need to include this gaze frozen in time. In that moment, we never see Zero head-on, never see the reverse shot of adoration. It’s only Agatha and light. And us.
The elder Zero tells the story to a writer, the writer remembers it long enough to write it as an older man, the older man’s book becomes important enough for him to become a beloved national author, and through the eyes of a devotee, we read this book. When Stefan Zweig incorporates listeners into the story, it’s not just for the purpose of framing. The value of a memory is in how it feels to the rememberer, but the value of a story is in how it feels to the one who hears it. It is the storyteller himself who seeks out the opportunity to tell his story—the older Zero needles the writer into admitting his curiosity and offers, of his own volition, to tell it in full. The telling is not for the benefit of Zero himself; he is giving something to the author, creating an experience for his audience. With its multiple framings, The Grand Budapest Hotel tells us that we are the viewers, the listeners, the readers. We are part of the experience, and we create our nostalgia as we experience it, so we can tell the story later of a place with bright reds, dark blacks, and swirling lights.
I remember The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I remember those swirling lights and the clutched breath and the deep longing. I think about that one frame of Agatha, frozen in time, holding her lover’s gaze—holding our gaze—as the darkness briefly clouds her face. Every time Zero and the writer and Wes Anderson tell me the story, I see that darkness and I face the irretrievability. I don’t feel nostalgia; I feel regret. For Zubrowka and everything it represents. For the grandness of the Grand Budapest. For Agatha.
* * *
When Calvino wrote about his frozen moment, it was in the story “t zero,” in which the narrator, a hunter, faces a lion L, the arrow A just fired from the hunter’s bow at the time tx. The hunter considers the possibility that A will collide with L at point X and he will be saved, or that A will miss the target L, which would then sink its very sharp claws into his chest in the less preferable of situations. It feels familiar, the narrator tells us, though not because of a comparable lion he’s fought or some feeling of ancestral memory lodged in his DNA. “If I say this moment I am living through is not being lived for the first time by me, it’s because the sensation I have of it is one of a slight doubling of images, as if at the same time I were seeing not one lion or one arrow but two or more lions and two or more arrows superimposed with a barely perceptible overlapping, so the sinuous outlines of the lion’s form and the segment of the arrow seem underlined or rather haloed by finer lines and a more delicate color.” He is experiencing a sense of timelessness, as if he’s lived through this moment in time and space, again and again. “What, after all, is the use of continuing if sooner or later we will only find ourselves in this situation again?”
While the elder Zero withholds a lot, rewatching The Grand Budapest Hotel can feel like a slight glimpse into the heart of an old man, thinking about his lost love and the potential of bright colors and bursting emotion that could have continued for the rest of his life (the internet loves a revisionist theory about a movie—what if the Grand Budapest Hotel of the past only looks that way because of how Zero remembers it?). Calvino’s hunter is doubtful. Zero seems assured. He memorializes his beloved with the hotel that stands for their love. With the story he tells of her. And he lets us see a little.
And we see the near-imperceptible smile, the tilt of a head, the unblinking eyes, the brightness and the dark. We see the warm glow of memory that says how great this was and the hint of sorrow asking how great this could have been.