Dir. Wes Anderson. U.S. 2014

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No one has ever confused the films of Wes Anderson with those of the Dardenne Brothers, but in their own inventive way, they can be just as touching. Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is very much in the audacious visual style of his previous comic fantasies - absurd situations, oddball characters, and zany action unfolding at a frantic pace. Here, however, the film’s unique voice and compelling performances has an underlying humanity that celebrates the social fabric of a civilized society where sensitivity and consideration for others had not yet gone the way of the hula hoop.

Inspired by the autobiography, The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig that describes the culture of intellectuals, poets, composers, and playwrights in pre-World War I Vienna, The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in Eastern Europe in the period between the two world wars, when fascism began its barbaric onslaught against civilized society. Set in the fictional country of Zubrowka, the film opens in the mid 1980s as an elderly author (Tom Wilkinson) talks about his meeting in 1968 (Jude Law playing the younger writer) with Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a once luxurious but now decaying palace high on a remote mountain accessible only by cable car.

As Moustafa relates how he began as a lobby boy and rose to be the hotel’s proprietor, the scene shifts to 1932 where Gustave H., played by Ralph Fiennes in one of his most convincing performances, is the flamboyant concierge who services some of the elderly hotel patrons in more ways than one. His closest relationship appears to be one with the 84-year old Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) whose sudden death touches off a drama that involves Gustave and immigrant lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) in one caper after another, the mutually supportive relationship between Gustave and Zero being the centerpiece of the film.

As the threat of war hangs like a pall over the horizon, Gustave is left a priceless painting (Boy With Apple) in Madame D. will leading to his pursuit by Madame D.’s treacherous son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), whose hit man is the sinister Nazi-like Jopling (Willem Dafoe). Another of his pursuers is the much gentler captain of the Lutz Military Police, Albert Henckels (Edward Norton), an old friend of Gustave whose heart doesn’t seem to be in his job. Madame D.’s lawyer, Deputy Vilmos Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) who insists on applying the rule of law, is one of the few sane people in the film.

The plot is full of twists and turns, filled with one hilarious situation after another, all unfolding with high energy and backed by the luminous score of Alexandre Desplat. One of the highlights is a chase scene between Gustave and Zero being pursued by Jopling over a Winter Olympics downhill course where red flags provide no obstacle. When Gustave is framed by Dimitri and ends up at Check Point 19, a forbidding looking prison resembling a concentration camp, Zero and his fiancée Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a pastry chef apprentice who makes super appealing confections created in the kitchen of Mendl's Patisserie, help him escape with the aid of Buster Keaton-type ladders, the criminal Ludwig played by a bald Harvey Keitel, and a secret society of hotel concierges known as the Society of Crossed Keys (Bill Murray and Bob Balaban among others).

Eventually, they are confronted by Nazis who are coming to power in the area and have moved into the hotel. Though on the surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a Mack Sennett-like comedy, beneath the surface, the film touches on universal themes and has a serious purpose. Old West story teller Charles Russell wrote an inscription in a gift of his stories to an old friend that could serve as a metaphor for the film, “Friend Tom,” he wrote, “this book is of the days that you and I knew. They are history now. When the nester turned the west grass side down, he buried the trails we traveled, but he could not wipe from our memory the life we loved. Man may lose a sweetheart but he don’t forget her.” Like the book, we cannot easily forget this film or the nostalgia it invokes.


Howard Schumann

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