A Journey to Zubrowka: A Pre-re-view of The Grand Budapest Hotel

by Chara Kitsaki

Gustave: If this do be the end, “Farewell!” cried the wounded piper-boy…whilst the muskets cracked, and the yeomen roared “Hurrah,” and the ramparts fell… Methings me breathes the last, me fears!” said he…

Zero pushes Jopling from behind; Jopling falls screaming over M. Gustave’s head

Gustave: Holy shit, you got him!

The words of the renowned concierge Gustave H. could not describe any better the fascinating and utopian world Wes Anderson creates in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel.’

If Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ introduced to the world the intricate form of ‘a dream within a dream,’ then Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ brought the narrative of a story within a story within a story within a story within a – if you’ve seen it, you get my point. Starting at the present and covering almost thirty years of fantastical history, the movie startles the Oscar scene with its vibrant colours, daring dialogue and brings together some of the finest casting any movie can aspire to have. Nominated for the remarkable amount of nine Academy Awards, the movie received praises for Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Cinematography, Best Production and Best Original Score.

For those of you who have not watched the film yet, the plot revolves around a notorious concierge named Gustave H. and his adventures with his lobby boy, Zero. Set in the fictional country of Zubrowka between World War 1 and World War 2, this delirious, witty and funny piece of cinematic work seems to cover far more than almost any other Wes Anderson production. As many critics have noted, while the movie passes from funny dialogue to deep reflection on life in a subtle and delightful manner, it has a quality of nostalgia usually found in black and white movies. Intentionally or not, the story seems to be distorted by the dream like state that is being presented in. Recalled through the intricate voice of an aged Zero Mustafa, the plot acquires a unique sense of melancholy and raw sentimentality. It’s the romantic allusion to a past that no one can pinpoint, in a place no one can quite identify, always remembered with colours that never seem to fit a realistic memory (how many purple hotels can you recall?) that make The Grand Budapest Hotel one of a kind.

Perhaps one of its most intricate features is its casting. While some might say that the actors were chosen in a Wes Anderson type casting way (he does tend to favour Owen Wilson and Andrien Brody) the collection of talented performers that he accumulated are, nonetheless, the key to bringing the words from page to life. The cast includes four Oscar winners, Andrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and F. Murray Abraham and twelve Oscar nominees, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan (dare pronounce her name) and Ralph Fiennes. Unpacking this intricate selection of talents, one can see characteristics that only these people could have brought to this particular movie. With Willem Dafoe as the violent Jopling, who seems to spent the majority of the movie punching people in the face (admittedly, he does look really good at it) Andrien Brody as the zealous but underlining dense Dmitri (whose phrase ‘What’s the meaning of this shit?’ is truly unparalleled) and Edward Norton as the rather kind and sensitive sergeant Henckels (‘I’m the son of Dr. and Mrs. Wolfgang Henckels Bergersdorfer. Do you remember me?’) there is not one character that has not been well thought and considered before casting.

DISCLAIMER: If you have not seen the movie and you are not a fan of spoilers, you might want to stop right about here! In any other case, please do continue…

One of the traits that seemed to capture my attention from the beginning of the film, is its moustache-obsession. From Gustave H., to Dmitri, to Deputy Kovaks to the character Owen Wilson plays that no one seems to recall his name (was it Cluck? Cuck? or Chuck?) there is not a single male character that does not own an exquisitely and uniquely shaped moustache. That is, apart from young Zero. What is it then, that this moustache-less character tries to convey? Is Anderson trying to parallel acquisition of facial hair with a particular type of Alpha male, masculine and powerful character? Or is he simply enjoying the visual effects of adding a moustache to a highly attractive ensemble of male actors? While we may not have the definite answers to these questions, we can definitely speculate around the lack of Zero’s facial hair. His childlike figure and endearing naivety in trying to become Gustave H. portray him as a rather innocent character. However, Zero is far from innocent. He is quick to bargain for more money from the selling of the painting, he voluntarily helps Gustave H. escape the police multiple times and frightfully smuggles deadly weapons in a prison. And soon, you come to realise in a very Gustave H. fashion that ‘Holy shit,’ it was Zero’s idea to steal the painting in the first place!

But it’s not just the intricate interplay with roles and their appearance that make The Grand Budapest Hotel an amalgam of symbols, stories and realities. When Jopling is examining Agatha’s picture on his desk, the insignia of the Zig-Zag division next to the photo is of similar design to the one belonging to the Nazi SS and Muslim Zero Mustafa is the only passenger from the carriage that is questioned twice about his intentions and immigrant status under two different ‘tyrannical’ regimes. Does this then, reflect a timeline of racial discrimination? Is this an allusion to fifty years of history following us to this day?

Again, these seem rather difficult questions to answer. Whether intentional or not, there are scenes that make you laugh and there are scenes that make you cry. Scenes that challenge the way you perceive film-making as a whole and scenes that make you question why you started watching it in the first place (did we really need to see Deputy Kovacs bloody fingers?) But there are not many scenes – not only in The Grand Budapest Hotel but in Hollywood as a whole – that leave such a powerful impact as the one right after Gustave H. escapes prison. Tormented by Zero’s forgetfulness, Gustave H.’s outburst seems to encapsulate almost a hundred years of human stereotypes in less than five on screen minutes. The simple and sometimes insensitive way Gustave H. seems to deal with events that come his way, suggesting that Zero’s poor background is to blame for his mishaps, points to a pattern of Western reactions to a variety of situations. Thus, letting us wonder, what were Wes Andersons intentions in introducing the latter interactions?

Moving on, what I personally consider one of the most underrated and possibly overlooked features of a film is its score. When original, the score underpins the movie and layers it with the most beautiful and imaginative sounds. Could you ever imagine Superman without it’s famous score by John Williams? The Godfather without Nino Rota’s sounds and Hitchcock’s Psycho without its hair rising and chilling tempo? In The Grand Budapest Hotel Alexandre Desplat’s Original Score might be one of the finest and most creative pieces of music for film you’ll ever get the chance to hear. Nominated, among many, for his work in ‘The Imitation Game’ and ‘The King’s Speech’ Alexandre Desplat is one of the most renowned movie composers of the past decade. In his own words, before engaging with the creation of a melody he asks himself ‘am I needed?’ and ‘what can I bring to this film that is not already in the script?’ His words enrapture the role of a movie score composer. He is not employed to reiterate the words of the screenplay. He is not needed to remind the audience of the scene they have just witnessed and he is not useful if the melody he creates is simply a flat addition that annoys the ear. According to Desplat, the duty of a film composer is to try and offer the director some option that they had not yet thought. Among others, the soundtrack features a rare instrument, the balalaika, a triangular-shaped Russian folk instrument that was carefully chosen and provides almost every scene of the movie with an astounding and unique undertone.

To hear the full Original Score check: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mo8xbxm-DYc&list=PLTnFiaQJwh6G6247WfNO4Ig5s-4ny52Wg – and you will not regret it!

As an afterthought, while the fading hotel seems very personal to Zero Mustafa, looking at it through the stained lens of a 21st century world, a world of fading intellectuals, dreams and morals, one cannot help but think that maybe The Grand Budapest Hotel is not as far as the fantastical country of Zubrowka. Maybe Zubrowka, with its fictional wars, stereotypes and power plays, is not a utopian country miles and miles away from our world and is as close as Europe or the United States.

But, I might be wrong. So I’ll leave it up to you to decide!

What I do know for certain, is that in the end Zero was right. Whether it’s Alexandre Desplat, Ralph Fiennes, Wes Anderson or the talented Gustave H: There are still faint glimmers of civilisation left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity…He was one of them. What more is there to say?

PS: And now, my personal favourite! 5 Fan-facts and trivia about the production/filming of the movie. Enjoy!

  1. Did you wonder how 50-year-old Tilda Swinton portrayed wrinkled Madame D.? Well, Swinton spent approximately seven hours a day in the makeup chair for the preparation of 84-year-old Madame D, earning Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier an Academy Award and herself a well earned back ache.
  2. Were you one of the people who paused the film to squint their eyes and read the articles on the newspaper when Zero informs Gustave H. of Madame D.’s death? If so, you’ll be delighted to know that unlike most films, every story/headline/article on every newspaper on screen has a detailed and complete depiction of Zubrowka events, all written by Wes Anderson himself.
  3. Were you secretly hoping that Ralph Fiennes gave long speeches before dinner with a trailing Zero to his side? Or that Andrien Brody (with a moustache) walked confidently across a pink floor? Then your hopes came true! According to Wes Anderson, the whole cast slept in the same hotel during what is called the film’s ‘principal photography.’ So yes, the real Gustave H. and the real Zero got their real moments together and probably Brody did walk across a floor – does it really matter if it’s not pink?
  4. Were you wondering about the period shifting in the movie? Don’t worry, Wes Anderson seemed to be wondering as well. The film takes place in 1932, 1968, 1985 and 2014. Confusion resolved?
  5. And I leave the most unbelievable for last: The Grand Budapest Hotel is the first Wes Anderson movie to ever win an Academy Award.

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