Monday, 18 August 2014

Is there any nostalgia in The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Although skeptical at first, I was enthralled after a few minutes by the movie I was watching, Wes Anderson's The Budapest Hotel. Not so much by its visual splendour - with the cake-like hotel, the mountains, the stylized miniatures and so on - but rather by the music. The score is by Alexandre Desplat, but some of the best tunes are adaptations of Russian balalaika music (both “Moonlight” and “Kamarinskaya”, performed by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra, irrestibly made me happy). The use of Vivaldi’s Concerto for lute in D Major is also effective.

I also liked the skilfull way the characters were introduced and the comical alteration of speaking styles (the “good” protagonists, for instance, like to speak in harangues that sound like when you read poetry aloud). Here the talent of Ralph Fiennes, who plays the consierge Gustave H, is an important contributing factor. I also liked Harvey Keitel’s brief appearance as a tough, matter-of-fact prison inmate (“It’s got what we might call vulnerabilities”). In fact, this is a good movie for admiring the small, brief appearances of several actors.

As an aside, as I write this I realize again that part of the secret of “realism” in portraying people lies in sketchiness, in not revealing too much. During the movie some characters are faced by choices such as: Will Gustave employ the paperless migrant boy? Will the attorney Kovacs cave in to Dmitri’s intimidations? Despite these situations being treated in an offhand way, I found myself watching eagerly to know what choices they would make, since I was unable to predict it in advance. This is of course just like in reality, where we only know most people around us superficially. But it is unlike standard Hollywood movies, where part of the implausability of character portrayals consist in the they are made to fit into pregiven molds and hence become predicatable and knowable at once. To me, this realism was one of the sources of the pleasure of the film.  

So how about serious analysis? Well, it’s a charming aestheticized picaresque. The overt political gestures (the civilized, aesthetic repulsion for fascist barbarism) are commonplace and not much to make a fuss of. So how about the role of nostalgia? Nostalgia is indeed an explicit theme in the film. “There are still glimmers of civilization in this barbaric slaugtherhouse once known as humanity” is a phrase that occurs twice in the movie. Nostalgia is also evoked by the juxtaposition of the hotel as it was at the height of its splendor in the early 30s with how drab it became in the communist post-war period. As the film ends, we are told that it was inspired by Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday.

But what is done with this nostalgia? Not much. There is nothing in the film that upsets it or puts it in question (just think of the contrast with The Shining, another great hotel film, where the brilliance of bygone days is an uncanny abode of horror). The Grand Budapest Hotel contrasts the beauty and aristocratic refinement of the lost world of yesterday to the brutality of ascendant fascism – a repulsive enemy that can be rejected without controversy. Admittedly, the fact that Dmitri, the scion of an archduchess, is portrayed as a fascistoid bastard shows an awareness that fascism had historical roots also in aristocratic circles. But such traces of historical accuracy are not developed into a critique and fail to diminish the radiance of the bygone civilization. The same can be said about the fact that the main protagonist is an illegal immigrant boy who has fled a genocidal war. As shown by the behaviour of Gustave, accepting such immigrants with generosity and humanity is portrayed as something that goes hand in hand with the civilization of yesterday. But wasn’t this civilization itself racist and colonialist? It certainly was, but in defense of the movie one might add that it was more so in countries like Britain, France and Germany than in the old Habsburg Empire which seems in fact to have been more tolerant.

So nostalgia is in fact not really a central problem in this movie. It’s there, of course, but not as a problem, not as something it struggles with. Rather than sorrow at the loss of the lovely world of yesterday, the movie delights in its dazzling, fictional reappearance before us. No sorrow can take root in this world since it it constantly swept away by happiness. This delight is akin to that of a collector or connaisseur who finds a lovely piece of art at a flea market or the tourist who discovers a charming little restaurant in a back street. Nostalgia, then, is surface. The film is not at all suffused by any desire to stay in touch with the lost world, a world that is long gone and never really existed anyway - except as a graceful illusion. Near the end, the aged Zero Mustafa is asked by the “author” if he kept the old hotel in order to stay in touch with “his world”, the world of Gustave. No, he replies with a smile, that world was already gone at the time of Gustave, "but he sustained the illusion with marvellous grace”.


  1. Dmitri is modeled, it seems to me, after Salvador Dali a supporter of Franco and referred to by the Surrealists as Avida Dollars.

    1. Interesting observation! I also recall that Dmitri smashes what looks like an Schiele-painting screaming somethings like "What shit is this?".


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