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The Grand Budapest Hotel

February 3, 2017

tgbhThe name of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka comes from the Polish vodka Zubrówka. It’s the brand of rye vodka, seasoned with bison grass and renowned in Europe.

In Rabbinical lore, the “Lutz” is a bone that houses the soul after death in preparation for the next life.

Zweig specialized in characters searching for personal freedom against encroaching governmental authority as the Nazis rose to power. Similarly moved by the rampant release of news stories of NSA surveillance and other government abuses in our own time, Anderson has crafted a parable .

Very few movies present portraits of individuals whose simple acts of kindness, sensitivity, and soulfulness contribute to the creation of a better world.

A young woman walks into a cemetery in the Republic of Zubrowka, a place said to have fallen on hard times. She passes a bench with three men singing and then approaches a memorial with several hotel keys attached to it, dedicated to a man known only as Author. The woman puts a key on the memorial and then takes out a book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

1985 – We meet the Author (Tom Wilkinson) in his home as his grandson runs around firing his toy gun. The Author addresses the audience and begins to tell the story behind his book as it was told to him in a very unexpected way.

In the 1930s, the Grand Budapest Hotel is a popular European ski resort, presided over by concierge Gustave H.. Zero, a junior lobby boy, becomes Gustave’s friend and protege. Gustave prides himself on providing first-class service to the hotel’s guests, including satisfying the sexual needs of the many elderly women who stay there. When one of Gustave’s lovers dies mysteriously, Gustave finds himself the recipient of a priceless painting and the chief suspect in her murder.

The whole film is buoyed not just by a sense of invention, but reinvention. The heroes are people who have re-created themselves, or tried to. Madame D., weighed down by propriety and matriarchal responsibility and memories of youthful vigor, escapes into fantasy with Gustave, the only person in her life who treated her tenderly in her dotage, and wills him the painting that (eventually) changes his life, as well as Zero’s. The inmates, incarcerated for all manner of crimes, escape prison alongside Gustave, then pile into a taxi and disappear into the wider world. Agatha, an apprentice baker, becomes an action heroine, helping her love retrieve ‘Boy with Apple’ at great risk to herself. We never find out the details of Gustave’s history, but we don’t need to. We see through his cultivated façade each time he intersperses his coy “darling”s with expletives or momentarily (sometimes tactically) forgets to be a gentleman. The L’Air de Panache stands in for his persona: The man has perfumed his entire life.

Why does Zero speak to a young writer he meets in the baths? Why does he unburden himself, to the extent that a polite and naturally reticent man could? Perhaps it’s to channel those unexpressed anxieties, give them shape, and, ideally, master them—rather than be mastered by them.

But also, and most importantly, to make sure that some part of each of them lives on. The decay of the body is irreversible,. Death is non-negotiable

The film’s final moments drive home the notion of stories as inheritances, currencies, legacies, gifts. We see the old Author sitting quietly on a couch beside his grandson. He’s wearing a version of the Norfolk suit he wore the night that he spoke to Zero—a night that we now sense was one of the most important he would ever experience—and he’s in a study (uncompleted, judging from the half-painted walls in the room beyond) whose décor echoes that of the hotel, circa 1968. His grandson is beside him. The old Author’s voice supplants the younger’s: “It was an enchanting, old ruin—but I never managed to see it again.”

Then we return to the young woman in the cemetery as she closes the book and stares at it. Perhaps she’s contemplating the larger meaning of the story she just read, or re-read, and wondering what she’ll take from it, or do with it. Or maybe she’s just thinking she wants to read it again, amid the tombstones. Life destroys. Art preserves.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a love story of sorts—not so much of Gustave’s love for Madame D. and his other moneyed guests, nor even of Zero and his betrothed, Agatha, the pastry chef with a birthmark of Mexico on her cheek. It’s a love story for beautiful things gone, a gentler time that has disappeared. And it’s embodied, of course, by the hotel itself.

When Madame D. leaves The Grand Budapest, she asks Gustave to light a candle for her in the sacristy of Santa Maria. (Gustave delegates the task to Zero.) Later, a bevy of friendly monks help Gustave and Zero unfurl a mystery. Both are given monks’ robes by way of disguise, and they meet a crucial source in the confines of a confessional booth. (A murderous villain also wears monks’ robes and carries incense.) Bibles are seen and sworn upon.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in an era straddling a decadent past and a brutal future, and both that decadence and brutality lurk in every carefully curated corner here. Most of the violence is intended to be comical … except when it’s meant to feel horribly realistic and almost profane. It’s done intentionally by the director, I think, to shock us and mar this idealized world he’s created. Beauty, he seems to want to tell us, is a fleeting thing. And the same may apply to the graphic sexual allusions as they relate to love.

These scenes, like all of Anderson’s, are flecked with an almost desperate pathos that looms behind the whimsy as he suggests that all good things do indeed end. The movie’s philosophy is summed up smartly (if obscenely) by Gustave himself, talking to Zero on the train:

“You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant … oh, fuck it.”

Quotations:

“She was dynamite in the sack, by the way.”

“I apologize on behalf of the hotel.”

“May I offer any of you inmates a plate of mush?”

“Honestly, you look better than you have in years,” Gustave H. sincerely tells the corpse of Madame D. “You look alive.”

“Unhand my lobby boy!”

Gustave: Rudeness is merely an expression of fear. People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved, and they will open up like a flower.

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