Frames of Reference: The Grand Budapest Hotel and the World of Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson has perhaps the most conspicuous and distinctive visual style of any popular American filmmaker. Because of this, a whole vocabulary has developed around criticism of his work. “Doll house,” “pastel,” “twee,” “whimsy,” “fairy tale,” “filigreed toy box” — pejorative or complimentary, these are the words people use to describe his films. And however accurate these descriptors are in providing a sense of the look of Anderson’s films, they often don’t account for the reasons for Anderson’s stylistic choices. The director’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, turns the director’s stylization up a few notches, and, I think, reveals something of the impetus behind Anderson’s style.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is in many ways different from Wes Anderson’s other films. First of all, it takes place mainly in 1932; Anderson’s only other film that’s set in a specific time period is Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which, taking place in 1965, is not much of a departure from his other films. The narrative of Grand Budapest is also in many ways unlike Anderson’s previous features, concerning, as it does, murder, war, sex, and a prison break. The film tells the story of Zero Moustafa (Tony Revoli), a lobby boy at the illustrious Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional kingdom of Zubrowka between the wars. He is taken under the wing of M. Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the Hotel’s famous concierge, who, besides being a great concierge, has a penchant for sleeping with the hotel’s rich octo- and nonagenarian guests. When one of these lovers is killed, the police accuse M. Gustave, and he and Zero undertake to clear his name, even as they’re pursued by homicidal thugs and the police, while the whole country is on the brink of war.
But you’ve got to go four levels deep before you get into the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
We start in a cemetery in the fictional Eastern European nation of Zubrowka in, presumably, the present, where an anonymous teenage girl pays her respects at the grave of a man known simply as The Author, whose book The Grand Budapest Hotel the girl clutches.
The film cuts to The Author himself (Tom Wilkinson) behind a desk in his study in 1985, addressing the camera directly, recounting the real life story that inspired his book The Grand Budapest Hotel, which occurred on a visit to the eponymous hotel some years prior.
We flashback to The Author as a young man (Jude Law) — now narrating the story off screen — on that 1968 visit to the then decaying Grand Budapest, where he meets an unscrupulous, elderly man named Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s owner and one of the richest men in Europe. Over dinner one evening Mr. Moustafa tells The Author the story of his years as the protégé of M. Gustave, concierge of the Grand Budapest, then the most luxurious hotel in Europe.
Finally, we transition to those years, specifically 1932, when young Zero worked as a Lobby Boy at the hotel under the tutelage of M. Gustave, the story now narrated off screen by the aged Mr. Moustafa.
I think to embark on a meaningful analysis of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and of Wes Anderson’s style in general, it’s important to first consider these frame narratives. Each one is distinct in visual terms, in narrative terms, and in terms of its relation to the audience. And not only does their distinctness reveal meanings within the frame narratives themselves, but their relation within the larger context of the film alters our understanding of how we read what follows.
Essentially, as we proceed through the frame narratives of Grand Budapest, the degree of stylization increases; that is, each successive frame is more artificial, more refined than the last. The film opens on the gates of a cemetery. It’s all pretty drab — subdued colors, cracking cement, rusted iron gate — and modern-looking, at least by Anderson’s standards (the Volkswagen bus at the edge of the frame is about as modern as the director gets). The widescreen compositions are distinctly Andersonian, but it’s all relatively restrained and quotidian.
When we move to the second frame narrative, the nature of the visuals changes. The Author sits in a carefully decorated office and addresses the camera directly. A distinct color scheme of oranges and browns emerges, and the lighting is warm and soft. The images are center-framed, and we get both a deliberate dolly in and a whip pan, two of Anderson’s signature camera moves.
In the third frame narrative, the stylization is even more pronounced. Our setting is now the Grand Budapest Hotel in its derelict, pre-demolition state. The aspect ratio changes; the images are impossibly widescreen, warping almost to the point of panorama. We keep the oranges and browns of the previous section, but shades of blue and purple now color the frames. The hotel’s decorations, though many of them retain their early-century grandeur, are specifically of the sixties. The scenery is expansive and opulent, complete with Arabian baths and grand dining rooms, and the compositions are precise and elaborate. The mise en scéne and the lighting become more mannered and theatrical, particularly during Zero and The Author’s dinner scenes.
In the final and most jarring shift, we skip to 1932, where the main action of the story takes place. The size of the image again changes, this time to a 1.33 aspect ratio, the image size used for silent films and early sound pictures, giving the film an immediately old-fashioned, nostalgic feeling. This feeling is underscored by the set design, which has now reached an apogee of opulence and detail, both for this film and for Anderson’s entire body of work. The Grand Budapest, now in its thriving, ideal state, is a monument to luxury; the vast lobby is lined with pillars and adorned to perfection — even the lobby boys, in pristine purple uniforms, are part of the décor, enhancing the refinement of their environs in both dress and gesture; wide staircases lead to glimmering balustrades inscribing rings up through the hotel; heavy oaken doors with gold handles; long corridors with beautiful blood red carpets; manicured hands and waxed mustaches; it’s all classical, European elegance.
The world Anderson creates here reminds me of another director, Ernst Lubitsch, German-born filmmaker who directed some of old Hollywood’s greatest pictures (To Be or Not to Be, (1942) Trouble in Paradise, (1932) The Shop Around the Corner (1940)), who virtually invented the modern movie musical (The Smiling Lieutenant, (1931) The Love Parade (1929)), and whose work was arguably more influential in the development of modern popular cinema than any director before or since.
Lubitsch was the master, perhaps inventor, of European sophistication in film, and Anderson is clearly indebted to the German icon in that regard. If not for the lavish resort in Monte Carlo, (1930) the charming and urbane thief in Trouble in Paradise, the fictional kingdoms (Sylvania, Flausenthurm, etc.) of many Lubitsch films, and the stylish finesse of every Lubitsch film, there could be no M. Gustave, no Zubrowka, no Grand Budapest Hotel, and, indeed, no Wes Anderson at all, at least not as we know him.
Other commentators have pointed out these similarities, and Anderson has made no secret of Lubitsch’s influence on his films. But what most interested me about The Grand Budapest Hotel was how closely certain aspects resembled Lubitsch’s early silent German comedies, particularly Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess) and Die Puppe (The Doll), both made in 1919. Though these Lubitsch comedies are grotesque, decadent, bawdy romps, whereas Anderson’s film is a sophisticated and playful comic drama, they share many of the same visual and stylistic touches: caricatural exaggeration of secondary characters (Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe in Grand Budapest, Victor Janson in The Oyster Princess); the use of iris shots to accentuate a character’s face; center-framed compositions; an excess of actors in shots, arranged in two lines on either side of the frame (used extensively in The Oyster Princess, and at the hotel employees’ dinners — and a few other places — in Grand Budapest); and finally, the use of hand-built miniatures.
It’s this last one that deserves a little more focus. For exterior shots of the hotel in Grand Budapest, Anderson oversaw the construction of a nine-foot tall hand-built miniature version of the hotel. The sparkling facade sits atop a tree-covered hill, and a track for a mechanized tram leads up the hill’s face. I haven’t read about any direct influence, but I can’t help but think that this miniature is a version of the miniature at the beginning of The Doll. The first shot of that film features Lubitsch, as himself, setting up the scenery for the first scene of his movie. He takes a miniature hillside out of a box and places it on a table, then attaches a tiny house at the top, pushes some fake trees along the walkway, and places a white background behind it all. Finally, he takes two tiny human dolls and puts them inside the house. The next shot is of this same miniature landscape (house atop a tree-dotted hillside cut by a pathway), only now it fills the whole frame. And out of the house come two real people, who walk down the same artificial hillside we just saw Lubitsch take out of a box.
Why that first shot? Why show the director setting up the scenery, and not just show the scenery itself? I think the reasons behind this decision say a lot about Lubitsch as a filmmaker, and inform how we can think about Anderson also. The best directors create the worlds in which their films take place. And this goes beyond a cosmetic conception of “world” (i.e. physical settings, as in sci-fi movies), though with their made-up countries and hand-built miniatures Lubitsch’s and Anderson’s films also have this. But the worlds of the best directors also manifest their own attitudes and modes of representation. For Lubitsch and Anderson, part of the world is the sense of artificiality, the interaction between reality and artificiality, explicit in the case of The Doll, and implied in the case of Grand Budapest. Just as Lubitsch prefers his creation, Paris, Paramount, to the “real” Paris, Wes Anderson constructs his own worlds, worlds which reveal unmistakable signs of their own creation.
A question that I think is important to consider here is this: what does it mean in the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel for something to be artificial? As an example, let’s consider our setting: the fictional nation of Zubrowka. Although the name of the hotel refers to a real city, and the film was shot mainly on location in Germany, the country of Zubrowka doesn’t exist, so we call it fictional. And in the first frame narrative, it makes sense to refer to Zubrowka as “fictional.” But once we get to the main story, past the other two frame narratives, does this classification still hold? To whom is the kingdom fictional? Certainly not to the girl, nor to The Author who tells us about the book that she’s reading, nor to the author who recalls his visit to the hotel which inspired the book, nor to Mr. Moustafa, who recounts the events that inspired the book to The Author, and certainly not to Zero, for whom Zubrowka was a refuge from his own (fictional?) homeland. Once the narration has been fractured and refracted, passed through these narrative channels, calling Zubrowka “fictional” no longer has any narrative or practical significance.
Part of this has to do with Anderson’s handling of The Audience, which changes in each successive frame narrative. In the first, we have a standard film to viewer relationship. We are in the real world, and the film we’re watching is fictional. In the second frame narrative, things get a little murkier. The author speaks directly to the camera, ostensibly to us, but since he only exists for us through his book, it’s really the Girl who’s his audience, making the camera a metaphor for the book itself. And since the Girl’s reading of the book serves as our entrance into The Author’s world, she always remains there as a buffer between us and this frame narrative. In the third frame narrative, the audience is even more nebulous. Though we’re presumably seeing what is written about in the book, the fact that we jump back in time to 1968, to a younger version of The Author, gives the impression that we’re now in the memory of The Author, contained in the book, which is read by the girl. Finally, the action of the story is recounted by Mr. Moustafa to the young Author. Working backward, the story is a memory of Zero, whose audience is The Author as a young man, whose audience is unclear but who exists as a memory of The Author as an older man, whose audience is both us (as he talks directly to the camera) and the girl reading the book, whose audience, finally, is us.
This is the most convoluted and confusing audience to film relationship I can remember experiencing. And maybe my explanation of it has made it more so. But in all this we see Anderson’s commitment to creating a world of complete artificiality; not only are the miniatures hand built to look deliberately artificial, not only are the compositions so perfectly ordered and minutely detailed, all the colors perfectly synched and complimentary in every frame — Anderson also constructs our relationship to the film, a relationship as utterly artificial as the nine-foot tall hotel where the film’s action takes place. In this way, Anderson’s world extends beyond the scope of the cinema screen to include the filmgoers watching it.
Near the end of the film, The Author asks Zero why he has kept the hotel, and if he’s trying to preserve the world that M. Gustave lived in. Zero says no, that M. Gustave’s world “had vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” He goes on to say that he keeps the hotel for his deceased wife, Agatha: “We were happy here — for a little while.” This idea of preservation is central to The Grand Budapest Hotel.
In essence, the entire film can be understood as a resurrection of the Grand Budapest Hotel. The hotel exists first as a notion, as something that a dead author would have written a nostalgic book about. Going through the frame narratives, it then transforms into a real thing, but something that only exists in memory, something to be recalled as an inspiration. Next, the hotel comes into existence, but as a husk of its former self, a derelict relic soon to be demolished. Then, finally, it is brought back to life in its perfect, fully realized form, depicted in vivid detail on the screen. But of course, implicit in all this is the knowledge that the hotel will die — it is, in fact, already dead. Although we can see it so beautifully rendered right in front of us, we also know that it is only alive through memory, put back together from notions and recollections, and that even while we watch what happened there, we know that the thing is long dead. In this sense, the artificiality of Anderson’s rendering makes sense — more so, it’s necessary. Passed through so many conduits, the world we’re seeing on screen is bound to feel false, to feel like a synthetic representation of the real thing; not only is it passed through the idealizing machine of memory, but details that are missing must be filled in, and thus can only be imitations. But this does not make them less real. Indeed, in the absence of our own memories of it, this fabricated replica is the only valid representation of this world that will never exist again. In this case, total artificiality is the only viable truth.
The idea of resurrection makes sense when you consider that death is all over Grand Budapest. The film takes place at the brink of a war that killed 2.5% of the world’s population, and the film is full of things and people that are already dead, are killed during the movie, or will be dead by the time we have seen the movie. These include The Author, Zero Moustafa, at least seven minor characters killed during the course of the film, M. Gustave, and, most importantly, Agatha. Indeed, the film begins with a girl paying her respects at The Author’s grave, and by the end of the film, she’s the only one who hasn’t died. The Grand Budapest Hotel, then, and its resurrection, represents not only itself, but the period in which it existed, including all those it contained, who were affected by its existence, or were themselves able to exist as they were because of the world that had created The Grand Budapest Hotel.
A title at the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel reads “Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig.” I had never heard of Stefan Zweig, but I came across an article in The Telegraph, a transcript of a conversation between Anderson and George Prochnik, the biographer of Zweig, an extraordinarily popular Austrian Jewish writer of the early 20th century. In the article, Anderson and Prochnik discuss a book Zweig wrote called The World of Yesterday, a memoir which chronicles the decline of the refined and artistic culture of Eastern Europe, brought about by the two world wars and the rise of nationalism. As I understand it, the book attempted to recollect and celebrate those idyllic pre-war days. This seems to me the same notion behind Anderson’s film.
Prochnik describes Zweig’s passion as a collector of books, manuscripts, and musical scores: “There were friends of Zweig who saw him as invested before the war in creating almost a cabinet of curiosities, a museum of Europe — one person described it as a garden — that would serve as a microcosm of the whole vast continent before it all got blown asunder.” Similarly, Anderson is a collector. He collects actors to add to his cast of characters, anachronistic objects and instruments to use in his films, details and images to create textured compositions. Perhaps excepting his first film, Bottle Rocket (1994), this inclusion of outdated objects, the deliberateness, theatricality, and artificiality of his films, imbues all of Anderson’s work with the sense of having already happened. In this context, the melancholy that marks all of his films is inextricable from nostalgia, and becomes not just sadness, but a longing for the past, a past which we’re not sure exists except in the absence felt by Anderson’s characters and his films.
Again, Prochnik on Zweig: “There is the suggestion that the whole thing is a feat of imagination. I think this resonates with the embrace of illusion in The World of Yesterday. It gets away from the idea that Zweig was unable to see reality, and moves more towards the notion that he had a desire to live in the imagination so fully that it would diminish the impact of the real.”
He could just as easily be talking about Wes Anderson. And through this lens, we can start to understand why the director is so dedicated to the construction of artificiality. His stylization is deliberate and ostentatious. It’s all so perfect and orderly and detailed — in sound design, set decoration, camera moves, acting — that we are always aware of the act of creation in what we’re seeing. Put another way, Anderson’s film does not evoke a period in time; it creates an artificial version of a period in time. A historical film, no matter how well researched, will never present a completely accurate version of the history it represents; it will always be an imitation. The only way to accurately represent the past, to represent anything, is to so fully and devotedly construct an artifice, whatever the nature of that artifice, that it can actually replace what it represents. The Grand Budapest Hotel, whether or not it is based on an actual hotel, has been realized so deeply, that it becomes an entity in itself more tangible than any representation of what a real place could be. And there is a reason that the movie shares the hotel’s name; the painstaking formation of the hotel coincides with the fabrication of the film itself.
In other words, the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel is made more real by the fact that it is so unreal. As Luc Moullet said, “The true is as false as the false; only the archi-false becomes true.” And Anderson’s film is archi-false in the purest sense — it is an original falsity, an extreme falsity. Everything is false: the narrative structure, the sets, the direction, even our relationship to it. Whether the sentiment to you feels hopeful or tragic — and the fact that it can be interpreted either way is, I think, the essence of the emotional depth of Anderson’s films — Wes Anderson’s project is to create an artifice so distinct from the real, that it supersedes it, and becomes itself the Real.
//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.
 There are other, more tangential stylistic connections between the two directors. As one example, the chase sequence in Moonrise Kingdom lifted the style of chase sequences in The Doll and The Wildcat (1921). Anderson even slowed down the frame rate to look more like a silent film.