With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson has moved himself from the ranks of the scrappy, fight-for-every-dollar, critically beloved filmmakers of Hollywood – the likes of Todd Solodnz and Harmony Korine – and into the auteur A-list. It’s the box office ($175 million worldwide) and the Oscar nominations, including Best Picture; from now on every film he makes will be promoted as “From the director of The Grand Budapest Hotel.” In the year since it was released, writers have done a pretty good job explaining what’s so special about GBH, particularly here, but no one seems to have discussed the film’s manipulations of dates and its characters who we meet in different periods. Let me attempt to correct that omission.
In a year of debate about historical fiction’s duty to history, Wes Anderson clearly offers no pretense toward veracity. The film’s action is set in “The former Republic of Zubrowka, once the seat of an Empire,” a fictional country “on the farthest eastern boundary of the European continent,” Zubrowka not unlike the redoubtable Syldavia used by Hergé in a number of Tintin stories. The British and American (and a few French) actors in the cast speak with something very close to their native accents – when Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray are using their American accents to play Eastern Europeans, surely no one should be mistaking the proceedings for high realism.
Yes, it’s a playful narrative, but that doesn’t make it an unthinking one. Anderson chooses dates for his story that have gone unmentioned by many American reviewers: 1985, 1968, and 1932. These seem all the more significant because Anderson might have just as easily set the entire thing during the interwar period (1919-1939). The film is loosely based on the works of Stefan Zweig, who died in 1942. In Zweigian fashion, Anderson chose to tell a story within a story within a story within a story: we first see a teenaged schoolgirl, in the presumed present-day, looking at a statue simply inscribed “author,” then looking down at her book, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” as the author’s photo on the book jacket double-exposures into 1985 where Tom Wilkinson, playing the author, tells us,
“…Once the public knows you’re a writer, they bring the characters and events to you. And as long as you maintain your ability to look and to carefully listen, these stories will continue to…seek you out over your lifetime.”
(As an aside, if in three weeks The Grand Budapest Hotel somehow beats Boyhood for the Oscar for Best Picture, these words will take on new irony. They’re probably already meant to be somewhat ironic, if not entirely prevaricated, but there would be an extra dollop of incongruity if America’s most mannered, hyper-stylized, planned-like-a-painter director [Anderson] vanquishes the American director [Richard Linklater] who has offered new valence to the simple act of listening [to his actors, his setpieces], with a film that includes a probably disingenuous paean to listening.)
Why 1985? Frankly, why not simply have Wilkinson narrate from the present? Well, at film’s end, the schoolgirl is presumably contemplating that they do erect statues for people who present themselves as no more than gatherers of tales like the one told about Gustave and Zero. Though adding one more layer to the narrative risks pushing the audience yet further away, one could argue that choosing not to begin with an aged Wilkinson instead draws in the young, saying “here was our century” to the current teenaged century. As for 1985, this was the beginning of glasnost and perestroika and thus the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Might Anderson be suggesting that this author’s novel played a role there? Or does the 1980s confer a sort of defy-the-Iron-Curtain bravery upon the author that wouldn’t have existed in the 1990s? Raising the stakes to “forbidden fruit,” when Eastern Europe remained more exotic than it is today?
Surely 1968, the year that the younger version of the author meets Zero, can be seen in that context: the Prague Spring, the tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia, and in fact a world in something of a revolution as evidenced by Paris, Chicago, and nascent post-Che Guevara guerrilla movements everywhere. Yet at the hotel, only decay and Communist trappings. The Grand Budapest is apparently too busy mourning a world before 1914 to overly concern itself with Nikita Khrushchev and Vietnam.
Ten minutes in, we arrive in 1932. Had Anderson set the lion’s share of his film in 1938, around Kristallnacht, no doubt dozens of reviewers would have leapt to comment on Hitlerian waves of repression. But 1932? Before Hitler took over Germany? Oh…Americans have less to say about that. Fewer of us are familiar with Holodomor, the genocide caused when Joseph Stalin insisted on collectivizing Ukraine’s farms. Anderson provides two conspicuously specific titles to bookend Gustave and Zero travels to (fictional) Lutz: “19 October: The Closing of the Frontier” and “17 November: Start of the Lutz Blitz.” These correspond to Stalin closing Ukraine’s border around that time. Americans like to think of Europe as relatively peaceful before the late ’30s, but Gustave’s repeated (and appropriate) invocation of “Fascists!” reminds us that the dark shadows were gathering long before. The main story ends with the future of The Grand Budapest Hotel securely in the hands of Zero after the Lutz Blitzers kill Gustave…just as Stalin tightened the screws on Ukraine (millions died there then) and Hitler rose to power in Germany. One door opened, at least two doors closed. (And what Selma-like timing, considering The Grand Budapest Hotel was released on March 7, in the height of Ukraine’s latest war for independence.)
So Anderson engages in a bit of playful historical revisionism, what some people call Forrest Gump-ism, where our characters perhaps give history that extra push it needs. Anderson deserves credit for being far more subtle about such things than, say, Titanic (“they know how to keep warm don’t they!”). But that actually interests me less than his casting choices. There are only two characters we follow between historical periods: the author, played by Tom Wilkinson and Jude Law, and Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham and Tony Revolori. (By the way, Revolori, of Guatemalan descent, keeps alive what can only be called the Anthony Quinn-Lawrence of Arabia tradition of casting Latinos as Middle Easterners.) In real life, Wilkinson is 67, Law 42; they’re separated by 25 years in real life, and 17 in the film. In real life, Abraham is 75, Revolori 18; they’re separated by a whopping 57 years in real life, and only 36 in the film. Why?
In the case of the author character, no one would have faulted Anderson for simply putting Jude Law in old age makeup. (Certainly there’s little effort made to have Law’s voice-over sound anything like Wilkinson’s, compared to the Herculean effort Ewan MacGregor once made to sound like Alec Guinness.) Cynics might say that Anderson simply likes stocking his casts full of famous people. But then why the enormous discrepancy between the ages of its two Zeroes? Of course one should cast Abraham whenever one can, but then why not move his part of the story up to 1985?
I don’t believe the age discrepancies were accidental, or simply casting the “best actor for the job,” whatever that might mean. In fact, I believe that they help accentuate the film’s themes. Time is short; the world we know is dying; here are characters experiencing that perishing world, and they’re dying almost too fast. Look while you can. At the end, the aged Zero confesses to the young writer, “I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say, he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” And isn’t that all we can ever do? Hey, isn’t that what filmmaking is?