"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is remarkable; it's a recent American film that salutes Mitteleuropa. Surprisingly, there are no Bieganskis at this hotel. There are no stereotypically evil Eastern European characters. Review below.
My Aunt Tetka lived most of her 101 years in Bayonne, New
Jersey but she never learned to speak English well at all. Who needed The New
York Times, Kennedy's inauguration speech, or William
Shakespeare? Aunt Tetka could sing all one hundred verses of Slovak folksongs.
Visiting Aunt Tetka was a trip to another world, a world
she took with her when she (finally!) died. There were many curtains. The air
was inside her home was as thick as soup. It smelled sweet, like Uncle
Strecko's pipe smoke, and pungent, of cabbage, onions, and ham. There were sepia
photographs of grim faced men with serious mustaches and women in embroidered babushkas,
oil paintings of peasant huts and high mountains, figurines of goose girls,
brass ornaments incised with pagan sun symbols and a graphic crucified Christ. Aunt
Tetka consumed only pastries, sprinkled with powdered sugar, served on handmade
doilies. Five minutes into Wes Anderson 2014 film "The Grand Budapest
Hotel," I was weeping. Anderson took me back to Aunt Tetka.
Mitteleuropa means "Central Europe" in German.
Mitteleuropa has had many meanings, some of them frightening, geopolitical, and
military. The friendlier Mitteleuropa references musics, languages, cuisines,
colors and attitudes of Central Europe, an area stretching roughly from Germany
to Ukraine, from the Baltics to the Balkans, a region sharing slivovice, zither
and cimbalom, Gypsies, irony, pastry, sentiment, Catholicism, Judaism
Orthodoxy, empire and cataclysm. Given recent news events, Mitteleuropa is much
in the news: today we speak again of Cossacks, Crimea, and empire.
There aren't many American films that encapsulate the
feel of Mitteleuropa. "The Third Man" comes to mind, with its famous
zither score. There's the original Bela Lugosi "Dracula" and
"Fiddler on the Roof." Most of these films emphasize the dark side of
the region, and that's too bad. Mitteleuropa has a rich tradition of joy and
humor. It's remarkable that Anderson, an all-American filmmaker produced
"The Grand Budapest Hotel."
When watching this film, I really wondered how much of it
the audience would understand. GBH so tenderly reflects the peculiar history
and experience of Mitteleuropa. For example, the movie is told as a
reminiscence by a writer remembering an encounter from his youth with another
person who retells the life story of yet another person. Why this "as told
to as told to" feature? Why not just present the narrative directly?
The "as told to as told to" feature adds to the
feeling of a lost world, of the antique, of a word-of-mouth story that is not
reflected accurately in official histories. If you read the official histories
of Mitteleuropa in the 20th century, you read of battles and
massacres. If you know the people from Mitteleuropa, you encounter warmth and
humanity and fate and humor and hair's breadth escapes and moments of
generosity and grace that never made it into official histories. If you hadn't
gone to that one déclassé health spa in the Zubrowkian Alps, you never would
have met that one person, and never learned the story of Monsieur Gustav, and
the tiny nation of Zubrowka would always be a mystery to you.
The opening scenes, in rapid succession, show the Grand
Budapest Hotel under communism, and then in its glory days, under something
like the Hapsburg Empire. These very brief juxtapositions are brilliant. They
really capture what those of us who traveled to Mitteleuropa saw under the
Soviet system, even the creepy green paint.
Monsieur Gustav is a concierge and gigolo. While training
a new lobby boy, Zero, Gustav becomes entangled in a family scandal, a heist, and
a prison break. There is a war in the background. For all its silliness, the
movie brings M Gustav to life. Ralph Fiennes MUST receive an Academy Award
nomination, and he really ought to win. He plays his part completely straight.
His deadpan delivery of funny lines and his commitment to M Gustav brings this
parody character in a wacky film to complete life. You love Gustav. You admire
him. He moves you. You care about his fate.
Tony Revolori is very good as Zero Mustafa, Gustav's protégée.
His relationship with Gustav is adorable.
The movie moves at a surprisingly brisk pace. The film
itself may be looking back with nostalgia, but it is an action film. There is a
genuinely exciting chase scene on skis.
GBH doesn't attempt to honor the horrors that took place
in Mitteleuropa in the 20th century. The Holocaust is just one of
these horrors; there was also the Holodomor, the mass migration of starving
peasants to the US, battle casualties, and too many other atrocities to
mention. There are scenes where characters speak of being displaced and on the
run, of families massacred. The viewer knows what Anderson is referencing. At one
point the GBH is taken over by evil forces whose insignia, a design close to a
swastika, appears on banners draped all over the hotel, in the same way that a swastika
was draped over the von Trapp home in "Sound of Music."
Anderson's answer to this evil is M. Gustav: be kind, be
a friend, and be quietly clever. Make connections with other humans. Do favors,
and rely on favors. This focus on the ordinary gestures of good hearted people
in the face of enormous evil is deeply touching.
I wish there had been more women in this film. Saoirse Ronan
is the one female part of note, and she speaks in an Irish accent as sharp as a
blade that totally took me out of the film. Her screen presence is cold and not
fitting. I wish there had been more peasants, and more outside scenes.
Mitteleuropa was built on peasantry and GBH needed at least one buxom earth goddess
binding sheaves of wheat or milking a cow.
There's so much more to say about this film – Alexandre
Desplat's fabulous score, the hints of German expressionism, the all-star cast,
the use of painted backdrops, the funicular – but there's time for that.
"Grand Budapest Hotel" is a film that people are going to be talking
about for a long time.
Thank you for your detailed review of this film. I am a BIG Wes Anderson fan. I've been looking forward to seeing his depiction of a region I love. So, it is awesome to read your positive review. I heard an interview with him on Fresh Air with Terry Gross recently about this film and it was intriguing and fabulous. Now, off to book a babysitter asap :-)!ReplyDelete
I was planning to see the movie before I read your review, now I have to see it. About Aunt Tetka, was she a family member, or a film character? I'm sorry to be so confused, but it sounded like she belonged to your family. If she did, I hope the photos and other items were saved as part of family history. Unfortunately, our family has little to nothing to remember our ancestors by.ReplyDelete
Carol, yes, Aunt Tetka was a very real person and a member of my family. Mementos? I have none, alas ...Delete