How do you get to the Grand Budapest Hotel? To be sure you will not find it on Trip Advisor, or on any maps of the region. Ditto the kingdom of Zubrowka, within whose borders it purportedly lies. But if you first travel to that beleaguered republic of Tomainia, where the dictator Adenoid Hynkel is on the rise to power, then cross over to nearby Bandrika, where visiting ladies are wont to vanish, and finally detour through Marshovia, whose king is known for his attraction to merry widows, you’ll be near enough to smell the artisanal confections of Mendel’s, official supplier of baked goods to the Grand Budapest and all of its denizens.
Of course, the true provenance of this extraordinary establishment is the expansive imagination of Wes Anderson, above flanked by “Grand Budapest Hotel” cast members Tony Revolori and Bill Murray, who has set his eighth feature film in exactly the kind of imaginary backlot Europe that was once the domain of Chaplin, Hitchcock, Lubitsch, et al. It is the Europe, too, of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian-born writer whose sublime novellas of unrequited passion and romantic longing made him the most widely translated author of the 1920s and ’30s, and who never recovered from the loss of his beloved Vienna, which he fled in 1934 with Hitler on the rise. Eight years later, living in self-imposed exile in Brazil, he and his second wife took their own lives. (In between, Zweig decamped briefly in America, which failed to seduce him as it did his fellow Viennese emigres, Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Max Ophuls, who achieved his greatest Hollywood success with his 1948 Zweig adaptation: “Letter From an Unknown Woman.”)
The exile life has agreed better with Anderson, who since 2005 has lived off and on (but mostly on) in Paris, where he first came across Zweig’s writing in the late, lamented Village Voice bookshop, just as the combined efforts of the New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press began reprinting the author’s complete oeuvre in new English translations. “I think I read the first page in the store and thought OK, this is a new favorite writer of mine,” Anderson says of Zweig’s 1939 “Beware of Pity,” his only full-fledged novel, which recounts the tragic, one-sided romance between a paraplegic baroness and a sympathetic cavalry lieutenant. “Then in the Luxembourg Gardens, there’s a bronze bust of Zweig, which I had never paid any attention to, and I thought, That’s the guy I’m reading. He’s more famous than I realized.”
Indeed, beyond his literary fame, Zweig was nearly as celebrated for being, in the words of biographer George Prochnik, “the quintessential dandy cosmopolite,” with a penchant for custom-tailored British suits not unlike the herringbone tweed number Anderson himself is sporting when we meet at Berlin’s storied Adlon Hotel, a few hours before “The Grand Budapest Hotel” opens the 64th Berlin Film Festival Feb. 6. “He seemed like he had so many friends in so many places, interesting friends,” the director says. “And he had interesting habits, in particular collecting books and manuscripts and musical scores” — a collection that included original pieces by Goethe and Mozart, as well as Beethoven’s own writing desk.
Anderson began to see how he might marry his newfound literary enthusiasm to a long-gestating screenplay idea he’d cooked up with the British artist and illustrator Hugo Guinness (who shares a “story by” credit), inspired by a mutual friend whom Anderson describes thusly: “He has a gently…I don’t want to say ‘patronizing’ manner, but he guides you about things that you don’t know that he does, and it’s only better for everyone if you let him steer you in the right direction. He corrects your errors and suggests an alternative. That’s sort of how we are with him.”
In the film, that mentor figure has become the Grand Budapest’s effete concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), who takes a young bellhop (newcomer Revolori) under his wing and, following the mysterious death of Gustave’s wealthy octogenarian mistress (Tilda Swinton), sets off on a scampering caper full of intrigue and espionage, clandestine romances and disputed estates, all set against the rise of Fascism and the looming shadow of war. Which war exactly? “We’re doing some mixture of wars in some made-up country,” Anderson says. “I read a chapter of this book that was in somebody’s house on a coffee table, ‘Present at the Creation,’ which is Dean Acheson’s big analysis of the Second World War, and his interpretation is that there was only one war, which he describes as a single war of German aggression in two movements. And I thought that would suit our story, to think of things that way, even though we don’t even have real Germans. I don’t think that theory probably has a lot of stock in academic circles, but I liked it, certainly for our own dramatic purposes.”
So we are alternately in 1932 and 1968, in the Grand Budapest’s glory days and its post-Communist decay, where an aged Zero, now the hotel’s melancholic proprietor (F. Murray Abraham) relates the story of his eventful life to a Zweig-like writer (Jude Law). “That’s a bit of a theatrical device for setting the stage, and he used it all the time in these psychological stories,” Anderson says of the film’s multiple circumscribed realities — a favorite Zweig trope. “It’s an unusual combination and very seductive and effective. That’s one thing I very clearly stole completely.”
The result is Anderson’s most ambitious and deeply felt movie to date, with a sprawling, “Grand Hotel”-like cast of characters (played by virtually every key member of the director’s stock company, plus a few newcomers) and a ceaselessly inventive design that combines its maker’s famously fastidious eye for live-action detail with the even more expressive possibilities of animation (elaborate miniatures, cut-outs, stop-motion effects, etc.) carried over from “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
For all its flights of visual and narrative fancy, there’s an inescapable gravity to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” that goes a long way to countering claims (such as those voiced by Richard Brody in a 2009 “New Yorker” profile) that Anderson has steadfastly ignored real-world politics in his films. Though the proto-Nazis of “Grand Budapest” (here called the ZZ instead of the SS) may sport color-coordinated pseudo-swastikas, they fire real bullets. Like the best work of the golden-age Hollywood masters to which it nods, it is a film that proffers enchantment and heartbreak in nearly equal measure. The despair of Zweig (and of his contemporaries Joseph Roth and Thomas Mann) for an irrecoverable pre-War Europe, subtly permeates every frame.
“I think the darkness is built into it, and it’s there just because it felt like it wanted to be,” says Anderson, who also cites Frank Borzage’s superb 1940 melodrama “The Moral Storm” one of the only Hollywood films of the period to directly confront the mounting Nazi menace, among his movie’s cinematic precursors. “It has nothing to do with me feeling obligated to do one thing or another. Probably funny fascist wouldn’t be that funny. I do think the realistic treatment of this part of history is not something I’m particularly drawn to do because it’s been done over and over and over again. I wanted to make our own thing and see what we could tap into.”