The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest film, is distinctively Andersoninan: meticulously designed, impeccably shot, quirkily acted, and fashionably attired. But there’s a slightly darker edge to this film than his previous efforts. With the world on the cusp of war and fascism ascendant, murderous villains and dank prisons dominate the auteur’s latest fantasyland.
A story within a story within a story, the primary action focuses on the inhabitants and employees of a famous hotel in the fictional Central European nation of Zubrowka. The year is 1932 and the winds of war have blown a young refugee named Zero (Tony Revolori) into the waiting arms of one of Europe’s finest hotels. He is to work as a lobby boy under the tutelage of Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a concierge’s concierge.
Gustave takes his young charge under his wing. “Keep your mouth shut, Zero,” is rule number one: A lobby boy is to be seen and not heard, and he never tells what he sees. “Rudeness is only the expression of fear,” he later preaches in a sermon to the assembled wait staff, the patron saint of good service addressing the gathered masses yearning for spiritual enlightenment. That service—and his, shall we say, bedside manor—has placed Gustave in the good graces of ancient women throughout the European continent.
One of those women, Madame D. (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), mysteriously dies shortly after her final stay at the Grand Budapest. Hopeful that she may have left him a few ducats, Gustave travels with Zero to the funeral—only to discover that the wealthy old socialite had left her Boy With Apple, a famous (and famously valuable) work of art. This, naturally, outrages the Madame’s family, who frames him for the grand dame’s murder.
The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s most fully realized and finest film, famously takes place in a kind of alternate-universe New York City. The addresses are all wrong, gypsy cabs have taken the place of their yellow counterparts, and everything feels slightly askew. The Grand Budapest Hotel does something similar to Europe in the run-up to World War Two. Not-quite-Nazis are on the loose, restricting travel by train and hassling the swarthy Zero when he can’t produce acceptable papers. Later on, we see Madame D.’s despicable son (Dmitri, played by Adrien Brody) sporting an armband with the not-quite-Nazis’ not-quite-Swastika.
This dislocation from history serves an important narrative purpose—it would be hard to accept a typically whimsical Anderson flick set to the backdrop of the Reich. But there’s something deeper at work. Combined with later allusions to the seizure of property throughout Europe by the communists and the rundown state of the once-grand hotel in the 1960s when the secondary story takes place, Anderson has done something you’ll either find endearing or infuriating, depending on how you feel about the filmmaker. He’s crafted a portrait of Europe in the middle third of the 20th century that is utterly stripped of politics, one that focuses on the toll dangerous ideologies can take without examining the ideological underpinnings themselves.
It’s a fascinating experiment, one that will undoubtedly reveal deeper layers upon multiple viewings.
The performances will also give repeat viewers something to chew on. Fiennes brings perfect comic timing, a dash of panache, and a pinch of levity to Gustave. Brody and Willem Dafoe (playing Dmitri’s murderous manservant, Jopling) are the closest thing to pure evil we’ve seen in a Wes Anderson film. Whereas previous villains—Fantastic Mr. Fox’s Boggis, Bunce, and Bean; the pirates in The Life Aquatic—felt as if they were just doing their jobs, Jopling and Dmitri bring a deep malevolence to the screen. They embody Europe’s heart of darkness just before its decline.