With special thanks to Jon Paul Pope, who talked this film over with me, helped draw out my own ideas, and whose own ideas are variously represented here.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon says, Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. These may or may not be words which have ever reached Wes Anderson’s ears. Since the late 90s, Anderson has made a career as a curator of Cold War aesthetics. Late 60s through mid 80s. The fillet of the Cold War, in fact. Anything before the Beatles seems unreachably far back for Anderson, and the few invasions of contemporary music into his films seem out of place (the cringe-inducing denouement of The Life Aquatic, for instance). But maybe not. His last film, Moonrise Kingdom, made good use of Benjamin Britten. His latest film contains no pop music whatsoever— a significant departure from the writer who, in the past, seemed to have built his best scenes around rock and roll. The Grand Budapest Hotel offers no slow-mo shots accompanied by the Kinks, but rather a contemplative, elegiac score by French composer Alexandre Desplat. After The Royal Tenenbaums, Mark Mothersbaugh seemed like Anderson’s right arm, although Desplat is more versatile than a Swiss Army knife, and if I may blaspheme the unassailable Rushmore score, Desplat adds a dignity and sadness to the whimsy of Anderson’s mood which the quirky Mothersbaugh could never muster. If this seems like too much talk of the music, the reader will note that The Grand Budapest Hotel credits run over images of the instruments used in the score. Anderson wanted to call attention to the departure.
We are not to say Why were the old days better than these? if we are to attend to Solomon, although we can point out the fact that old days simply were better all we want. We will not be able to unearth the causes, though. I find this a poignant place to begin because I’ve heard a lot of eschatological mountains made of this single verse… theological progressivism built off the idea that nostalgia is wrong, fond remembrances of the past unwise. But that’s not really what’s on the line. Solomon condemns asking why the old days were better than our own, not the recognition that they were better. Solomon aims to cut off reconstructionist desires to remake the past, rebuild the past, rob from the past. Was the world a more sane place in 1700? Obviously. Why? Well, why do you ask Why? Whatever you have in mind, it won’t work. None of that can be reclaimed. So much of Ecclesiastes concerns the illusion of control that the verse at hands seems rather obviously spoken to those who would attempt to commandeer the present like some kind of nose-diving plane. The economists. The luddites. I doubt Wes Anderson thinks he can save the world by looking happily into the past. I have children. I know that children are good and adults rotten and that this is the reason why Christ uses rebirth as a metaphor for salvation.
The Grand Budapest Hotel begins in 1985, then reaches back to 1968, then back to 1932 and into the mind of M. Gustave, who seems always reaching back to a pre-French Revolutionary world which is ever more distant. Gustave is the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a pink seven-storied number which looks like the kind of cake only Mendl’s Bakery could come up with; the film is an internally-reaffirming world to a degree Anderson’s previous films have only aspired towards, but never finally achieved. Even in 1932, Gustave is a curator of the past. He is no creature of his day, but regards his own day as already having succumbed to a toxic view of progress and self-congratulation. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a temple, and M. Gustave is the high priest. He carnally communes with the (nearly) dead, preaches at meal time, and dresses in a regal purple suit, as though to rule. When a lobby boy appeals to him for employment, Gustave catechizes the young man and is only satisfied when the suppliant declares his desire to work at the Hotel on the grounds that it is “an institution.” I was reminded of W.H. Auden’s description of the obligations of the Church to tell an ancient story, again and again, generation after generation, to anyone who would listen.
Gustave remembers the past fondly, and, in himself, seems a chastisement to the modern world, which is ever looking for new ways to annex its past. Does anyone look back? Anderson seems to ask, now become bored with the same stuff he has spent the last decade refining. In the 1980s, the concierge of The Grand Budapest has become the stuff of heroes by the old Anderson’s standard, but has become the butt of the joke according to the new Standard. The old concierge would have stopped the world for a choking hotel guest, while the new concierge obliges to save such a life by conventional, bureaucratic standards of good taste. Anderson distances himself from his old movies, much like Woody Allen accomplished when he moved against Sleeper and Bananas with more conventional stories, resigning the quirky to the realm of the juvenile and focusing himself on a new, more mature recherché.
I might summarize the plot here, a murder mystery incorporated into nationalistic intrigue worthy of the collaborations of Carol Reed (especially Night Train to Munich, borrowed from here with something approaching nearly familiar degrees of familiarity) and Graham Greene, although the film speaks volume for itself. Anderson deals in politically incorrect words as conveniently as Tarrantino did in Pulp Fiction, and those who say “faggot” in The Grand Budapest Hotel stand for them who say “nigger” today. At the same time, the director seems beyond contemporary politics, dismissive of the need to speak politically correct. When villain Adrien Brody calls M. Gustave “a faggot” and “a bisexual,” he seems hopelessly lost in the old world, although Anderson is elsewhere reticent to leave that world in the past.
M. Gustave never appears a straightforward hero, neither does he seem villainous, though he certainly speaks and acts in such a way as to get himself ostracized in a modern world. His tagalong, Zero Mustafa, is so lenient to any cause of moral judgment as to render the audience silent. Gustave makes moral judgments on aesthetic standards alone. In the final act, after finding himself an absentee vote in a world committed to advancement, but also “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” a line repeated several times throughout the show, lest it escape our attention, Gustave resigns from the realm of Anderson’s typical heroes and goes to get shot in the head by border police— an odd death by Anderson’s standards, where no man has previously been murdered. At the end of all the years, the director and writer seems willing to admit the Cold War world is a terrible one, replete with unjustified violence.
The casual viewer will find a film more gory than the typical Anderson fare, while the longtime viewer will find a film far more grown-up. The Grand Budapest Hotel finishes with a lingering sadness which refuses to be undercut by comedy or quirk, as Anderson’s previous films do so easily. Walking out of The Grand Budapest, I knew Gustave’s sadness that any respect for the past is gone, that respect of the future is paid glibly. I hung on the precipice with Gustave, shocked when the violent old world was momentarily thrown into the abyss, but certain it would return, nonetheless.
We should not commit ourselves to reminiscing the past, though Anderson gladly remembers an era of high morale and high polity as an ideal. Jason Schwartzman plays the glib concierge of the 1960s, who might have been a hero of an old Wes Anderson film, though here he seems a token of the West’s failure to replace old manners with anything of value. The Grand Budapest Hotel goes down alongside The Song of Roland and The Divine Comedy as a solemn, though self-aware salute to the Old World, wherever it might be.