Wes Anderson’s latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel, offers up a delectable cinematic confection, but if you slice open the marzipan you might just discover an unexpected taste at its centre. The film begins in a cemetery, a young girl adding her keys to the numerous hooks mounted on a monument to “the author.” She opens up a copy of The Grand Budapest Hotel, transporting us to our next Anderson universe. “The author” aged and battling the grandchildren, explains how he came to be “the author” of the tale, delivering us to a once grand, now decaying, soviet-era hotel in the fictional republic of Zubrowka.
Here “the author,” the younger version played by Jude Law, encounters the mysterious owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, Zero tells his story, and we indulge in the sweetest layer of the cake, the truly grand era of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Zero tells the story of how he came to be the lobby boy at the hotel, under the gossamer wings of the devoted dandy concierge, Gustave H. (played hilariously well by Ralph Fiennes), who makes his guests (mostly older, richer, blonde women) exceedingly comfortable, often servicing them in their boudoirs. But when his most beloved guest, Madame D., is murdered, and Gustave H. inherits a famous renaissance painting, “Boy with Apple,” fingers are pointed at Gustave.
Gustave makes a pact with Zero (the younger played by Tony Revelori), appointing Zero his sole heir in exchange for his help. The murder of Madame D. and the wrath of her evil children, headed by her cartoonishly evil son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and his brilliantly scary, silent henchman Willem Defoe, aren’t the only front Gustave is forced to fight. War is coming and the forces of the occupation soon wave their pseudo-swastika squiggle flags from the atrium of his beloved hotel. Zero, a refugee whose family were murdered and his village destroyed in his nameless home state, has seen it all before. All he cares for is the survival of his mentor Gustave H., and his betrothed, Mendl pastry chef Agatha (Saoirse Ronan).
A British-German co-production, The Grand Budapest Hotel was filmed entirely on location in Germany. The beautiful façade of the hotel was inspired by the Palace Bristol Hotel in Karlovy Vary, Carlsbad, though Anderson uses a scale model for the exterior shots, letting the toy-like funicular take you high in to the world of the hotel. The stunning interior was filmed in the Görlistzer Warenhaus in Berlin, suitably one of the few grand department stores in Germany to survive World War II. Anderson gives each time frame a different aesthetic, from the bright pastels of the glory days, to the dour browns and greens of the soviet era. As we are transported through the labyrinthine universes of time by the respective narrators, the aspect ratio also changes (so basically, you’ll see the frame change dimensions).
But don’t let the beautiful aesthetics fool you – this film has a fable sensibility, Anderson privileging “old world” values; beauty, art, chivalry, manners, above the violence of war time and the suffocating stringencies of political ideology that would eventually destroy the old world. It’s impossible to exist outside of this history, as Gustave H. tries to in his glorious Alpine hotel. The innocent bear the burden of war, not least, the good ones.