Wes Anderson's latest movie opens up his miniature world to scary stuff like war and the threat of genocide. Good times!
The Grand Budapest Hotel, in important ways, is not like Wes Anderson’s other movies. It’s more violent. The body count is higher. The jokes are some of the roughest he’s ever worked. The story is set during the years before World War II, and for the first time in the director’s career the realities of history threaten to destroy his storybook kingdom.
Like a 19th century novel, the tale is told in levels, among a number of tellers. It opens in the present, where a solitary girl reads a novel entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel. Which leads to the author of the novel, played by Tom Wilkinson, discussing the text and how he came to write it. Which leads to the fictionalized younger figure of the author, now played by Jude Law, checking into a hotel run by an older man named Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who has a story to tell. That story, the old man’s story of how he came to own the candy-paint cake of a hotel, is the one you’re after.
What happens when the Nazis invade Candyland? That question is the source of a new kind of tension in Andersonville.
It’s 1932 in the imaginary country of Zubrowka, and if you’re a refined hotel concierge like Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), life is an endless buffet of older women to seduce/cake up off, guests to entertain with impeccable table service/conversation, and lobby boys to push around/mentor. Our heroic lobby boy, née Zero Moustafa (played by young actor Tony Revolori), is the first sign that Anderson is working in a new playspace. Revolori is Latino, and has the second biggest part in the proceedings. This is the biggest role for a person of color in any Anderson movie thus far, a fact noteworthy because Anderson has been criticized for using “race as a novelty.” Anderson takes the piss out of himself with a white privilege joke that caps off the trailer: Gustave’s nervous that Zero might speak with the authorities, and asks about his ability to stay quiet under questioning. When Zero mentions that he was tortured in the aftermath of an uprising in his unnamed desert country, Gustave, without missing a beat, says, “Right, you know the drill, then.” But of course Zero knows something Gustave can’t, and the laughter is more wincing than anything else.
It’s 1932 and it’s necessary for this story to have an Other. (Fascism needs an Other to scapegoat.) Revolori’s Zero fits that role. But so does Gustave, in a way. One of the older women he’s romanced has been killed (it’s the event that sets the caper into motion) and, at one point, there’s some static between Gustave and the woman’s angry son. The son calls him a faggot and a fruit. You can hear the disgust in his voice at Gustave’s heavily cologned and perfectly coiffed exterior, and Gustave’s admission that he “go[es] to bed with all [his] friends.” Anderson’s world has allowed for minor hate in the past—remember Royal Tenenbaum’s racist language when he argues with Henry Sherman in The Royal Tenenbaums—but never has he been so explicit about the possibility of that particular kind of horror in the world. (Usually divorce, uncomfortably protracted adolescence, sharks, and being a genius have been the biggest problems for his characters.)
Again, it’s 1932 and the purifying scourge of fascism is knocking on every door, goose stepping around every corner, and investigating every train car for its occupants’ proper papers. The Other must be rooted out and exterminated. But what happens when the Nazis invade Candyland? That question is the source of a new kind of tension in Andersonville. Previously, the chief tension powering Anderson’s movies has been the tension between control and its lack. Anderson’s characters want desperately to control the uncontrollable things in their lives, and go to great pains to do so—think of Rushmore’s Max staging the hit-and-run accident to get into Ms. Cross’ bedroom, coming prepared with stage blood and a tape of French songs. This tension is enhanced by the control Anderson exercises over every frame, with every color, costumed performer, and prop in its right place.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the stakes of actual history poke holes in Anderson’s miniature world. Like some kind of gas, the horrible past gets into his movie. He’s letting it in, and for the first time. At a New York Times hosted event, he made it clear that he wanted to make a movie engaging with this period of history. Sure, at The Grand Budapest Hotel you have the sort of fun any Anderson movie delivers, but nothing deflates a free-wheeling moviegoer like Ralph Fiennes suddenly photographed in black and white and an execution at the hands of a marauding death squad. There are two train interrogation sequences (the second of which is the one in black and white), and the collision of signifiers conjure up the Holocaust: trains, the uniformed men demanding papers, the non-Aryan who squirms because his papers aren’t right. Factor in the extra-textual information that Fiennes famously earned an Oscar nomination for playing a Nazi, and Edward Norton, who leads the group of menacing soldiers on the train, famously earned an Oscar nomination for playing a neo-Nazi, and you have the darkest moments Anderson has ever filmed.
Schindler’s List, you can’t help but think, and things like a madcap ski chase or a zany funicular ride take on a different tone. Coming late in the game as the second train sequence does, at the end of the movie, the fantastic elements of the previous acts feel more complicated. They become attempts to ward off the chaos and terror and pain of the past. This is new ground for the director.
And so The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s boldest movie yet, a sign that he isn't making the same movie over and over again. This is a new, bloody chapter for one of America's most idiosyncratic directors. Wes Anderon just drained the color from the screen.
Ross Scarano (@RossScarano) is a deputy editor at Complex. His tweets may or may not reflect the fact that he's currently on a W.G. Sebald bender.