Not the least distressing thing about Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is its end title claiming to be inspired by the life and work of Stefan Zweig. Some nerve, some failure to read. Zweig (1881-1942) is an abiding figure in modern literature and neurotic conscience, even if he is not well-known. He was Austrian, the author of stories about love and betrayal, consequence and complicity. He was prolific, and widely read in his day, and now he is pursued with devotion by those haunted by his psychological insight and his precise accounts of private disasters. In terms of movie history, he wrote the novella that led to Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). See that film after visiting the Grand Budapest. You won’t go back.
Zweig fled Austria in 1934. He went to England, then to New York and finally to a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. He was in despair at the state of the world and the onset of fascism, and in February 1942 he and his second wife took large doses of veronal and ended their struggle. It is a Zweig-like twist, I suppose, that while concentration camps opened at Sobibor and Treblinka in 1942 and the gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau became operational, the same year still saw Midway, Guadalcanal, and the start of the battle of Stalingrad. An end was in sight, though easily obscured by large abysses. Come to that, the end was only a beginning.
So why is the name Zweig so startling at the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel? To put it simply, because this film is the work of a talented and vacant young director whose “brilliance” (I’m sure the word will be used) should not conceal his indifference to the depth of experience that preoccupied Zweig.
Among the visual themes Wes Anderson is drawn to are entrances or thresholds. He is crazy about rigid or fanatical compositions in which a directly faced portal yields to enclosed space beyond (he is born to make a prison film). So, too, as a narrative, this film has a fussy entranceway in which, decades after the actual story, we are introduced to a man (Jude Law) who visits the Grand Budapest Hotel and meets its elderly owner (F. Murray Abraham). Thus, the owner recounts the story of the grand days of the hotel (in a mythical European country, “Zubrowka”) when the ornate and pompous establishment relied on the whim and cunning of its concierge, Monsieur Gustave (played by Ralph Fiennes).
There are hints that Fiennes has it in him to portray a worthwhile human being here—tender, smart, impulsive, humane, and witty—but this potential is smothered by Anderson’s chronic preference for guest stars and demented art direction. As a filmmaker, he has been tending that way for some time: in Moonrise Kingdom, the arty glee with which its island was depicted began to eclipse any response to it as a human or social gathering place. But in this film, the tendency is an avalanche of sickening sweetness. So the picture is a remorseless succession of pretty frames with frosted colors that might come from a Viennese patisserie. The vision is unique and inventive, but indigestible and likely to overwhelm some viewers. There is a production designer credited, Adam Stockhausen (he was on 12 Years a Slave, too, though you wouldn’t guess it). The esteemed Milena Canonero did the costumes. But I think Anderson is the visionary in charge. Still, to be a visionary does not eliminate the possibility of some attendant blindness.
Under different direction, Gustave might have been a model figure of wayward decency in a world threatened by bullying orthodoxy and fascism. It is there in Fiennes’ tentative, anxious face, begging for a narrative line to grasp. Then the decor comes flooding in, like the blood from the elevators at the Overlook in Kubrick’s The Shining. But in that other hotel story the delight in art direction was at the service of the human story. In Grand Budapest Hotel, the decoration is a constant onslaught, and finally it amounts to another intimidation. (Anderson and his fans may be surprised by that observation, but immense style can become authoritarian.)
Another version of this art direction is the treatment of everyone else in the film. Anderson has long had his family of actors, and here it is enlarged. So you should be ready to identify Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray—on and on it goes. These guests have a scene or two, quirky make-up and costume, and no connection with reality. Take Bill Murray. Here is a rare eccentric among American actors, someone not just ready for but reliant on unusual adventure in a project (Groundhog Day, Mad Dog and Glory, Lost in Translation). Yet he is not easy to cast in the regular scheme of American movie-making. A couple of years ago he had a lively chance, playing FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson. He was good in the part, and the film died like a bubble in the sun. So what can he try next? It turns out here as another hotel concierge; he is given a quick cartoon sketch, long enough for us to say, “Oh, look, it’s Bill Murray!” But there is nothing else, and nothing to justify his time or explore his talent. The result is close to a lot of Woody Allen’s work, with actors wheeled in and out as celebrities, not parts of an organic fiction.
So Grand Budapest Hotel is dazzling, exhausting but bereft. It relates to the atmosphere and texture of Stefan Zweig like an achingly sweet pastry on a tin plate at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a rococo dead end, a ferment of decoration, unwitting complacency and ignorance.
In Zweig’s Beware of Pity (1938), a young cavalry officer makes the gaffe of asking a crippled girl to dance. He feels compassion for her, and is betrayed by it—hence the title of the novel. Here is Zweig with his officer coming upon the sleeping invalid:
But I must not disturb this sleep, which kept her from herself, from the dread reality of her existence! It is a most wonderful thing to be close, to be near to the sick during their sleep, when all their feverish thoughts are held captive, when they are so completely oblivious of their infirmity that sometimes a smile lights upon their parted lips as a butterfly upon a delicate leaf, a smile foreign to them, a smile which does not belong to them, and which, moreover, is scared away on the very moment of awaking.
Why shouldn’t a film review recommend a book?