At their worst, Wes Anderson’s films are mere showpieces. They’re meticulously stage-managed, lavishly appointed cross-sectional dollhouses erected as staging grounds for their director’s rarely not enervating quirks and obvious opportunities for Hollywood A-listers to recharge their thespian cache. (The idea that Anderson is an “actor’s director”—as if there’s another kind?—has always smacked bogus, given that to perform in a Wes Anderson movie is generally to perform in a self-consciously stilted, nouveau-Victorian, drained, and affectless pantomime that would play as totally unchallenging were it not so observably different.) And in the best cases, Anderson squares his paisley trick-bag of Godardian compositions and book of vintage carpet samples with a congruent thematic meaning. In 2011’s excellent Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s incurable nostalgia was a nostalgia for the lost summers of childhood. Here, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is either his best film or his best film since his last film, it’s the waning of historical memory, of the past slipping irretrievably beyond some distant horizon.
The film nests stories within stories, its structure approximating the complexity of Anderson’s latest living dollhouse (that is, the titular hotel, nestled in the peaks of the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka, accessible only via animated Alpine lift). It opens in the present, on a young reader opening a book, The Grand Budapest Hotel, then shifts to a few decades earlier, with its author (Tom Wilkinson) explaining that everything contained therein is true. It then shifts, further back, to the mid 1960s, where that same author (now played by Jude Law) putts around the halfway-derelict Grand Budapest, happening across its itinerant owner, M. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Then again, Anderson cracks open another narrative layer, Matryoshka-like, with Moustafa narrating the story of the Grand Budapest Hotel (that is, the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the legendary concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who oversaw the most persnickety details of the hotel’s operations during the peak of its grandeur (roughly, the years spanning the Great War and the Second World War).
That story, despite its ostensible complexity, is the stuff of an old Murder, She Wrote episode. M. Gustave finds himself in a textbook imbroglio after one of his many aging lovers, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, garishly aged to resemble a shellacked soft-serve cone), bequeaths him with an invaluable painting of a pink-cheeked boy holding an apple, much to the consternation of her quick-tempered son, Dmitri (Adrian Brody, wrapped in clingy leather like a proto-fascist hopeful waiting to be tapped for the big leagues). (Even nastier: Willem Dafoe’s knuckle-cracking man-at-hand, whose ruthless thuggery intimates something of a greater, more consuming doom.) Framed for the murder of Madame D., M. Gustave ends up in prison, setting up a lengthy escape plot that owes as much to the precision of Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen as it does to the madcap ladder-comedy of Buster Keaton. In his cartoonish quest to clear his name, M. Gustave is aided by his “Lobby Boy” and diligent protégé, the young Zero Mustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori).
The Grand Budapest Hotel bears all the markers of a Wes Anderson work, from the gaudy-chic period textures to the clever staging; upon realizing his under arrest for murder, M. Gustave bolts out of the frame as Anderson holds on the bumbling, Benny Hill-ish tableau. The film finds its gravity in its interwar setting, and in the process of revealing its story (within a story, within a story, narrators losing credibility all the way down), Anderson knowingly erodes the facts of interwar Europe. A state police force shaking down a passenger train for suspicious visas is decked out with “66” insignias that suggest the 88 regalia of neo-Nazis. Later, an army rallying under a demonstrably SS-ish zig-zag logo turn the Grand Budapest into a hoity-toity barracks. A Soviet-styled newspaper early in the film calls itself The Daily Fact. There’s talk of blitzes. And wars. And statelessness. Of troubles and trouble brewing.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film about history that avoids it entirely. Not out of cowardice or lack of nerve, but because the head-on acknowledgement of Europe’s long 20th century is quite simply too painful, too gauche. With subtlety and studied nuance, Anderson evokes a time where the sort of high-flown civility prized by M. Gustave and, to a lesser extent, all the attentive staffers of the Grand Budapest was being devoured by an insatiable, cannibalistic barbarism. So in place of a direct attack, Anderson flanks the issue, subbing in these not-so-coded references to Hitler, to Stalin, to Mussolini’s blackshirts. Even the character names are ciphers. Standing in place of verity is Anderson’s comic hyper-reality, which mattes over the battered textures of history like dust hanging on curtains in an old hotel.
It’s not all pratfalls though. And when the film’s jokey façade is ruptured by violence and, even moreover, by melancholy, it’s more affecting than anything Anderson’s drummed up to date. (It’s hard to believe that this is the same filmmaker who once thought it was totally okay to resolve The Life Aquatic’s wispy thematic threads about parental diligence and responsibility by staging a climatic, stop-motion Sigur Rós music video.) It’s in Fiennes’s performance as M. Gustave, his Andersonian affectless ruptured by real pathos and frustration, that The Grand Budapest grounds itself. When he tells Zero that his sexual proclivities trend toward the hotel’s older, more sophisticated clientele (“cheap cuts,” he uncharitably calls them), it’s obvious that this a man obsessed with an age he knows is waning into the dim, as if he can literally fuck the residue of civility out of some old dowager and shore himself with it.
Early, M. Moustafa likewise expresses his fondness for the rundown Grand Budapest, admiring it as a “ruin.” But in a way it always was: a totem to notions of civilization and refinement that have disappeared—a second-hand whisper of a better, more honest world, a story of a story of a story.
Berlinale runs from February 6—16.