A Light-Hearted Requiem for Old Europe

Reflections on The Grand Budapest Hotel

One must forgive some viewers for mistaking Wes Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) for comedy. The film was billed as such. But, as in the case of its titular edifice and the rest of Anderson’s corpus, beneath a light-hearted veneer lurks deep melancholy. Ostensibly this is a caper about a hotel concierge dodging murder charges while chasing a vast fortune. At the same time, it is also a portrait of Old Europe—along with its Jewishness—in the midst of its dying. Beneath the film’s cartoonish frivolity lies that tragedy.

A decadent three framing devices provide the context. The film opens on a monument to a fictional and nameless author—“our national treasure”—in a small cemetery in the former Republic of Zubrowka, a fictional country “on the farthest eastern boundary of the European continent” and “once the seat of an Empire,” as the opening titles announce. To be fair, it feels more solidly central European and was filmed, in fact, in Görlitz, Germany, on the Polish border.

The story then flashes back to that author, aged but still living, explaining how he finds material—or, rather, how his material finds him—and then flashes back to the author (Jude Law), then in his prime, who engages in an extended dinner conversation with Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), a hotelier and former multi-millionaire nearing retirement, in what remains of the Grand Budapest Hotel in then-communist eastern Europe.

Mr. Moustafa explains how he came to own the hotel. The story involves many gunfights, foot races, a jailbreak, and a ski chase, permeated throughout by the seductively obsequious customer service offered by Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Budapest who mentored young Moustafa (Tony Revolori), then a mere lobby boy. Fortunes are lost and won, borders crossed, and multi-course dinners served. Along the way, Moustafa falls in love with Agatha, the daughter of Herr Mendl, a baker. It is all fairly silly.

But for the framing devices, silly it might remain. Even the Nazis are cartoonish, emblazoned with fictitious insignias. During the story proper, the only glimpse of true tragedy comes towards the end: M. Gustave dies, probably shot, while trying to politely convince German soldiers to release his immigrant friend, Moustafa, despite his lack of adequate traveling papers. In better times, appealing to their common humanity and to his aristocratic connections would have sufficed. Such days were done.

Gustave had chosen Moustafa as his heir, leaving him the vast fortune he had finally succeeded in inheriting after dodging murder charges. In lieu of keeping the money, Moustafa opted to keep the hotel once Soviet Occupation made private wealth intenable. Thus ends old Moustafa’s story.

In the final moments of the film, the young author (Jude Law) asks himself in a voiceover, “Zero Moustafa had traded a great and important fortune in exchange for one costly, unprofitable, doomed hotel. Why? Was it merely sentimental? It was quite forward of me and a bit out of character, but I felt I must know. For my health, I suppose.” And so he asks: “Is it simply your last connection to that vanished world? To his [M. Gustave’s] world, if you will?”

The older Moustafa replies, “His world? No I don’t think so. You see, we shared a vocation. It wouldn’t have been necessary. No. The hotel I keep for Agatha [his now dead wife]. We were happy here. For a little while. To be frank, 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.”

What was M. Gustave’s world? The world of gentility and tradition. Old Europe, decadent, decaying, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious. As it had been one, perhaps; or as its heirs remembered it, as it had never been. The world of Zubrowka. The world of empires, palaces, dukes and duchesses, priceless oil paintings and delicate pastries. The bygone world of which the hotel, still in its prime, was a last tangible reminder.

There are no explicit references to “Jews,” “Judaism,” or “Jewish” by such labels anywhere in the film, although some significant members of the cast are Jewish or have Jewish roots, hinting that the characters they play (a lawyer, an author, and a minor nobleman, for example) may be as well. This ambiguity serves to heighten the reminder of how assimilated much of central Europe’s Jewish population had been prior to the Holocaust. By contrast, the German soldiers and the aristocrats who are the objects of M. Gustave’s affections are all noticeably Aryan; in the case of the latter, this is overtly defines Gustave’s modus operandi.

There is only one character explicitly indicated as Jewish, at least based on his last name: Herr Mendl, Agatha’s father the baker. He supplies the pastries to the Grand Budapest. He delights aristocratic guests and occupying soldiers alike with his elaborate creations, such as his towering courtesan au chocolat. He represents the millions of other artisans whose trades once thrived, handed down from father and mother to son and daughter, only to have their lives cut short.

Sugar-coated with stunning visuals and a generally light-hearted tone, the film touches on the Holocaust, despite not being overtly about the Holocaust at all. Other films about the Shoah have tended to emphasize the process of the loss itself: alienation, ostracization, displacement, starvation, and mass murder. Such accounts must be told. But Anderson’s story accentuates the tragedy in other ways, not by emphasizing the process of loss as much as by emphasizing what was lost: an entire world. Yes, Old Europe was often fleeting and foolish; but it was also magical. It was a place when Jews could also be Germans, Austrians, Czechs, or Hungarians, as well, and that place is no more. For all its fictiveness, Zubrowka offers audiences a glimpse into a world that is now long gone.

After speaking with Moustafa, the author later concludes to himself, “It was an enchanting old ruin, but I never managed to see it again.” Whether this referred to the hotel or to the continent is unclear, although the author did not see either again, so both are plausible. As the credits inform the viewers, the film was “inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig.” The Jewish-Austrian author fled Europe as Nazi armies advanced. He never saw Europe again. He and his wife committed suicide together in exile in Brazil in the middle of World War II. He wanted to die in his intellectual prime, as he explained in his farewell note. The world was no longer a place for such gentlemen of the subtle graces.

The film closes on the monument to the unnamed author, Zubrowka’s national treasure. On his monument hang hundreds of keys, just like those behind the front desk at the Grand Budapest, behind Gustave and Moustafa in their day. These are keys to doors, hotel rooms, apartments, homes that are gone. For those of us who cannot know them or remember them first-hand, imagination may be our most powerful tool for taking personally the magnitude of the tragedy.

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