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“But it doesn’t mean anything.”
“So we put in words. One word for every note, like this…”

— ‘Do-Re-Mi’ from The Sound of Music

Does music need words to make it meaningful? Do we have to find a message in a work of art before we can appreciate it?

the-grand-budapest-hotel movie poster

Here we are with a cinematic piece that can’t be ‘explained’. What genre? What theme? What purpose? I’m not going to bother. As with my experience of watching previous Wes Anderson movies, somehow, I feel I need to let my rational side relax and just enjoy the ride. Rushmore probably has more of a traditional storytelling mode and thematic content. But with The Royal Tenenbaums, I have to adjust the quirky frequency to high, it’s a totally different kind of viewing experience. Fantastic Mr. Fox, I was mesmerized by the stop-motion animation and humour, great voices add to the lively adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story. Moonrise Kingdom, I wasn’t fully gratified but by then, I was used to the Wes Anderson style of ‘magical realism’.

That ‘magical realism’ strikes again in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Not my favourite colour palette, red and pink, by I was totally captivated as soon as the film began. I was being led into a fairytale world of real life people. From the cinematic framing, it aptly demonstrates the idea of symmetry. In many frames, the subject is right in the centre, almost perfect symmetry on both sides of the screen. But does it mean anything? One might ask. If we have to be rational about it, shall we just say, for the effects of a neat and tidy piece of the old world. Framing nostalgia before the world becomes too distorted, too inhumane. This is, after all, 1930’s Europe. And we can see the parallels in signs and symbols especially towards the end of the movie when uniformed men take over the Hotel.

Grand Budapest Signs & Symbols

Wes Anderson credits Stefan Zweig in creating The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Austrian writer’s name is shown at the very beginning of the end credits. In numerous interviews, Anderson pays tribute to Zweig’s whole collection of works, a writer who is noted as once ‘the world’s most translated author’. Zweig is a relatively new discovery for Anderson but so deeply has the writer inspired the filmmaker that ‘it’s basically plagiarism’, Anderson joked at the news conference when the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

As someone who is much intrigued by the creative process of adapting books into films, I did read some Zweig before watching Budapest. I must be reading the wrong works though, I’d thought. From the novella Chess Story, to a few of the stories I read in the new collection recently translated into English, all tell very gloomy tales. The writings almost exude a sense of despair, as the characters are mostly running away from persecutions and ethnic cleansing, or memories thereof, even driven to madness as the chess champion Czentovic in Chess Story, albeit some descriptions embed a subtle trace of humour.

Maybe along the notion of ‘Wabi-sabi“, beauty and sadness, what Zweig has done subtly and now Anderson explicitly is to extract and fuse “humor and sadness”. Here in Budapest, writer/director Anderson has freely utilized the element of fantasy and fun to paint the passing of an old world, a realism too sad for millions in 1930’s Europe, Zweig being one of the subsequent victims. To escape the incendiaries of Nazism, Zweig and his second wife moved to England, then to the U.S., and finally to Brazil in 1940 where he ultimately committed suicide together with his wife in 1942, leaving a note of utter despair as he saw Nazism dominating Europe and his former homeland Austria.

In this fictitious Republic of Zubrowka, where The Grand Budapest Hotel is situated, Anderson offers us a great escape despite setting his story within the brewing tension of 1930’s Europe. The story begins with a closer to present day author (Tom Wilkinson) reminiscing upon an extraordinary experience which has inspired his book The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Concierge Desk and Main Staircase

Years ago when he was still a young writer (Jude Law), in finding cures for writer’s block, he had retreated to a mountain hotel The Grand Budapest and in there met its owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Known as Zero when he  himself was just a lobby boy in an age long passed, the owner told the writer his story of how he came to inherit this grand piece of property, albeit in a run-down shape now. Someone volunteering an extraordinary life story to an author in an exotic locale, the beginning of Budapest reminds me of Life of Pi, another great tale of magical realism.

But the movie belongs to Ralph Fiennes as the hotel Concierge and go-to person for all sorts of favours, M. Gustave. The death of long time patroness of the Hotel Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) has dragged M. Gustave and his protégé, the new lobby boy Zero, down a rabbit hole of misadventures and fortunes. Fiennes has proven that he is a versatile actor that can be as evil as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, or as madly romantic as Count Almasy in The English Patient, or as charming and fun here in Budapest. His comic timing is first-rate, his expressions, spot-on. My long-range forecast, an Oscar nom awaits him next year for his role in Budapest.

Gustave & Zero

The line-up of talents is long, not just in acting, where we find the usuals of Wes Anderson movies like Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum. Saoirse Ronan (breakout role as young Briony in Atonement) as Agatha the pastry maker is adroit and whimsical. She’s well matched to the young lobby boy Zero, aptly played by Tony Revolori.

The movie is also marked by the delightful compositions of Alexandre Desplat, whose musical scores adorn many notable movies in recent years. A collaborator with Anderson since Rushmore but here, Desplat’s scores captivated me early on with the lively East European themes and in particular, the Russian folk melodies. Some instruments that we seldom hear in other films are distinctly alluring, such as balalaikas, zithers, dulcimers, and organ, with full orchestral rendering. Another long-range forecast, Oscar for original score.

And then there’s the make-up of Tilda Swinton, the art work and production design of the whole Budapest experience (even the parody painting “Boy with an Apple” is an original art work by English painter Michael Taylor from a real life model), the flowing editing, the original screenplay and directing, the cinematography, Budapest Hotel is going to be one grand entry in the next Academy Awards.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Read a related post: How Zweig Inspired Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: Oscars for Best Costume Design, Make-up, Production Design, Original Score.

Feb. 14, 2015: Wins Best Original Screenplay from WGA.

Feb. 8, 2015: 5 BAFTA wins, Original Screenplay, Original Music, Production Design, Make-up and Hair, Costume Design.

Jan. 15, 2015: 9 Oscar noms, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up and Hair-Styling, Costume Design, Original Score.

Jan. 11, 2015: Golden Globe win for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical

Dec. 11: 4 Golden Globe noms for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, Wes Anderson for Best Director and Best Screenplay, Ralph Fiennes for Best Actor – Comedy or Musical

Dec. 10: SAG nom for Best Cast in a Motion Picture

Dec. 7: The Grand Budapest Hotel wins Best Screenplay and Best Production Design at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: The Grand Budapest Hotel just wins Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle

Related Links:

From BBC CULTURE: The Writer Behind Budapest Hotel

From NPR: The Rise and Fall of Stefan Zweig

The Music Behind the Screen

The Untold Story Behind ‘Boy With Apple’

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