The world is a lonely and hostile place. People find themselves wandering through it in isolation, searching for connections that matter and last. As C. S. Lewis famously described us, we are “half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition,” searching for meaning in pleasures that offer no lasting satisfaction.
This is the world that Wes Anderson shows us in The Grand Budapest Hotel, a marvelous and meticulously crafted movie.
It takes place in the fictional Eastern European nation Zubrowka, and is told in several cleverly constructed layers. It opens with a young girl walking to the site of an author's memorial, where she opens a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. We're whisked back to 1985, where the author of the book (Tom Wilkinson) begins to narrate a story that took place in 1968, when his younger self (Jude Law) stayed at the hotel and met its eccentric owner, M. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). The hotel was once an icon of European aristocracy, but is now a shell of its former glory, decorated in the severe modern designs of Cold War Communist Europe. Its guests and residents dine alone.
The writer discovers that Moustafa visits the hotel rarely and always stays in tiny servant's quarters. Intrigued, he strikes up a conversation, and the two soon sit down to a long and luxurious dinner, where Moustafa tells the young writer the story of how he came to own the hotel. Then we're whisked back in time again to the 1930s, where the hotel is at the height of its glory, and Europe's political tensions are just beginning to boil into the 20th century's long and horrible nightmare.
With each shift of time, Anderson changes the feel of the movie, progressively ramping up the sense of whimsy and nostalgia. When telling the story that takes place in the '30s, even the aspect ratio of the movie shifts to the square format of movies from that time. It's as though we share the narrator's wonder in remembering, seeing it with the rosy and warm sheen of longing for the past.
The plot of the story is a classic Hollywood caper involving murder, art thieves, love, and jail breaks. Moustafa, in the 1930s (Tony Revolori), is a lobby boy who comes to work at the Grand Budapest Hotel. He's been displaced by the growing political tensions and war, and we learn that his first name is Zero. His family is all dead.
He's taken under the wing of the hotel's concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), standing beside him as Gustave runs the hotel with the flair and glory of a bygone era. He rules with an iron fist, calling the staff to serve its patrons with a furor while enduring their abuses, and to go above and beyond the call of duty—including Gustave's own cringe-inducing commitment to going “above and beyond” the line of duty in the bedrooms of wealthy, elderly female patrons.
When one such patron (Tilda Swinton) dies suddenly (and suspiciously), Gustave is more than a little hopeful that there may be good news for him in her will, so he rushes onto a train with Moustafa alongside as his valet. When the train is stopped at a security checkpoint, the state police discover that Moustafa is a stateless refugee.
To be stateless in Eastern Europe in the 1930s was a very dangerous thing. While Anderson deals only in a fantasy version of history, he clearly evokes the horrors of the early 20th century. As the movie goes on, the political background of the story grows progressively more intense. The state police get replaced by death squads wearing black military uniforms marked with a double Z—a mirror to Hitler's SS, and as we know from the austere Cold War décor from the scenes set in the 1960s, Zubrowska is headed for Communism.
Moustafa, alone and stateless, intensifies the film's sense of loneliness and isolation. He is a figure guarded by no national laws, with no roots, and with nothing to protect himself from the growing monstrosities surrounding him. Stateless Jews, Gypsies, refugees, and other victims of concentration camps and gulags were the scapegoats for all of society's ills.
And yet, when Moustafa's status is revealed, Gustave intervenes and protects him. Beneath his snooty, narcissistic exterior, he has a core of compassion. He's truly a man of another era, with a strange gentlemanly commitment to the dignity of those under his care. An almost paternal bond forms between Gustave and Moustafa, and it becomes the beating heart of the story that unfolds. They sacrifice for one another and stand side by side in the midst of a world of chaos—the chaos of criminals, death squads, scheming heirs, and hit men.
Like other Anderson films, these heroes wear their flaws on their sleeves, and their brokenness is a bridge for the audience. It's a crack that exposes something deeply human and indentifiable in the midst of Anderson's impeccable cinematic craftsmanship: the perfectly framed shots, the dramatic lighting shifts, the narrative gimmicks, and the larger-than-life costumes. While his worlds are gorgeous and fantastical, his characters are deeply human.
In Anderson's stories, these characters find themselves in impossible and absurd situations, longing for connection, acceptance, and redemption. In Moonrise Kingdom, he knits together a story about loneliness, adoption, and judgment. In The Royal Tennenbaums, he tells us about a shattered family and their impossible efforts at reconciliation. And in The Grand Budapest Hotel, he gives us icons of isolation and alienation—a man out of time watching his world crumble, and a stateless refugee—who find solace and stability in a chaotic world when they befriend one another.
Author Michael Chabon, writing about Anderson's films in The New York Review of Books, sees Anderson's project as a way of navigating the world's brokenness:
Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged, kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves. And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.
Maybe Anderson's sense of meticulousness—the peculiarity and particularity of his characters and settings—is more than an aesthetic statement. Maybe it's a reminder that people, in their strangeness and uniqueness, matter. Maybe when they stick out like sore thumbs amid a busy but beautiful backdrop, it's because we're all—like Gustave—meant for another time, another world, another reality. Maybe the sadness of all Anderson's characters is the resignation of those who don't know but feel as though they were meant for something more.
In each of Anderson's films, we hear similar refrains. As meticulous as they are, as perfect as the frame might be, these films display a world that is deeply broken and people who are unsettled and alienated. But, Anderson tells us, no matter how bad it might get, no matter how grim and dark, there are always flickers of light and glimpses of hope.
I wonder if Anderson's commitment to such a redemptive vision is intensifying. In his last two films in particular—Budapest and Moonrise Kingdom—he ends with strong, beautiful redemptive metaphors. Moonrise Kingdom ended with a blend of distinctly Christian images. The climax of the story involves a church (shaped like a boat), surviving a flood (with many illusions to Noah's Ark), and the adoption of an orphan. Loneliness and isolation find their cure in acceptance and belonging, especially for the quirky and alienated child at the center of the story.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, these themes are explored again, with Moustafa—the orphan—experiencing redemption because of the sacrificial love of Gustave. I won't ruin the end of the film, but I'll say this: Anderson gives us another image that echoes the hopes of the gospel, the hope that love is stronger than death, and the belief that the growing darkness in the world will not ultimately extinguish the light.