An Innocent Abroad
Wes Anderson is a love-him-or-hate-him kind of auteur, and I’ve always been in the hate-him camp without giving the matter too much thought. The whimsy; the quirky objets assigned their respective places in the filmmaker’s painstakingly composed tableaux; most of all, the absence of any true content aside from a vague existential melancholy and a nostalgia for times that never, at least in my relatively long memory, really existed: all this irritated me from the moment I first encountered the Anderson style more than a decade ago in The Royal Tenenbaums. Since then I’ve paid little attention to him, but in recent months the very serious critical respect accorded The Grand Budapest Hotel and indeed Anderson’s whole body of work has compelled me to take him more seriously—or if not him, then whatever it is that his remarkable success indicates about our culture and the direction in which it is going.
Anderson’s films, after all, are now included in the Criterion Collection, surely the gold standard for world cinema: with a few exceptions, only bona fide classics have made this grade (though two films by Anderson’s contemporary and crony Noah Baumbach, another director whose shelf life seems to me dubious, have also sneaked in). And then A. O. Scott of the New York Times, no lightweight pop-culture maven, and no easy Anderson mark either (“Yes yes,” he addressed Anderson in his Royal Tenenbaums review, “you’re charming, you’re brilliant. Now say good night and go to bed”) came out with a review of The Grand Budapest Hotel indicating that Anderson had acquired a new level of gravitas. “This is a movie,” Scott claimed, “concerned with—and influenced by—an especially rich and complicated slice of twentieth-century European culture, and therefore a reckoning, characteristically playful but also fundamentally serious, with some very ugly history.”
In choosing to set his film in 1932, in an imaginary Central European country, Anderson could hardly have avoided this ugly history. So—how would this director, with his spun-sugar aesthetic and his poor-little-rich-boy themes, handle it? And what about his quintessentially American (WASP variety) vision? As Anderson himself has admitted, he has an outsider’s perspective on Europe—“I don’t share their cynicism. I’m shielded from it, because I’ve been through nothing like any of the things these people went through.” Would he be able, just this once, to transcend his penchant for eye candy? And does the film actually constitute, as Scott claims, a “reckoning” with the past? At forty-four, Anderson is part of a generation for whom the 1930s is ancient history; even their parents’ memories do not go that far back. So what does that past represent for him?
The source material he’s mined, that’s “inspired” him, is that of the Mitteleuropa masters of the interwar years: filmmakers Ernst Lubitsch (b. Berlin, 1892); Max Ophuls (b. Saarbrücken, 1902), and Rouben Mamoulian (b. Tbilisi, 1897); most of all the sensitive, versatile writer Stefan Zweig (b. Vienna, 1881). Anderson created a little library on the set of The Grand Budapest Hotel so that his actors might make themselves familiar with the style set by these artists. Zweig’s 1942 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was part of it, as were Lubitsch’s great films Ninotchka and To Be or Not To Be, Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de . . . and Letter from an Unknown Woman (adapted from a story by Zweig), and Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, a unique confection of music, stunning photography and innovative camera work featuring those two quintessentially 1930s stars, Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. The idea, clearly, was to recreate the world suggested by these artists, a world characterized by wit, urbanity, cosmopolitanism, elegant lubricity, the lighter-than-air “Lubitsch touch.” Anderson’s hero, the Grand Budapest’s suave manager Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is supposed to be its embodiment. A quick-talking, charming “fixer” of the type that in an earlier era might have been played by Melvin Douglas, the bisexual Monsieur Gustave provided “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” as his sidekick, the hotel boy Zero Mustapha (played by Tony Revoluri when young, F. Murray Abraham when old) remarks many years later. Puppet-master of the sort of grand Continental hotel that was already on its way downhill in 1932, the dandyish, perfumed M. Gustave is not only a crusader against entropy and corroding standards, he somehow becomes, in a time when notes of menace must work their way even into a Wes Anderson movie, invested with political significance.
Mitteleuropa at its height was perhaps the most cultivated society ever known to man. In The World of Yesterday, Zweig recalled the Vienna of his turn-of-the-century youth, a city in which a “fanatical love of art, in particular the art of the theater, was common to all classes of society.” The long Viennese tradition had given birth to “something unique—a great veneration for all artistic achievement, leading over the centuries to unequalled expertise, and finally, thanks in its own turn to that expertise, to outstandingly high standards in all cultural fields.”
When the old Burgtheater where the premiere of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro had been given was to be demolished, Viennese high society gathered there in a mood of solemn emotion, and no sooner had the curtain fallen than everyone raced on stage to take home at least a splinter from the boards that had been trodden by their favorite artists as a relic. Even decades later, these plain wooden splinters were kept in precious caskets in many bourgeois house-holds, just as splinters of the Holy Cross are preserved today in churches.
Similar hysteria went on at the destruction of the Bösendorfer Saal, Vienna’s home for chamber music, where Chopin, Brahms, Liszt and Rubinstein had all given concerts. “Whenever one of these historic Viennese buildings went,” Zweig remembered, “it was as if a part of our souls were being torn from our bodies.”
Is this something that comes through in The Grand Budapest Hotel? Not if you differentiate art from aesthetics—and there certainly is a difference. But the discord between Zweig’s and Lubitsch’s visions and Anderson’s goes deeper than aesthetics and is more disturbing. You might call it the case of the missing Jew. For there are no Jews in The Grand Budapest Hotel; the “Jewish question” that tortured Europe in 1932 might as well not even exist. Where are they? The brilliant Mitteleuropa of the early twentieth century was to a large extent created by its Jews, and it was the Jews who bore the brunt of the region’s tragic subsequent history. As Zweig pointed out, the Jews’
desire for a homeland, for peace, repose and security, a place where they would not be strangers, impelled them to form a passionate attachment to the culture around them. And nowhere else, except for Spain in the fifteenth century, were such bonds more happily and productively forged than in Austria . . . In fact, it must be said in all honesty that a good part, if not the greater part, of all that is admired today (1942) in Europe and America as the expression of a newly revived Austrian culture in music, literature, the theatre, the art trade, was the work of the Jews of Vienna. [And, he might have added, of Budapest, Berlin, and Warsaw.]
Yes; the vision that inspired Anderson was in fact created by Hollywood, and the Hollywood of that era had in its turn been created by Central European Jews, a group that included not only Lubitsch and Ophuls, but Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, Franz Waxman, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinneman, and Erich Korngold. Working in Hollywood in the 1930s, these artists were reassembling a dream Europe that had already, with the rise of fascism and Nazism, disappeared. And in truth it had disappeared much earlier—with World War I, when, as Zweig wrote, “Something had been crushed along with the armies—a belief in the infallibility of those authorities to which my generation had been brought up to be so subservient in our youth.”
The great Hollywood artists were the lucky ones; torn from their native soil, they were able to move on and produce brilliant work, if of a different sort. Stefan Zweig himself was not so fortunate.
We who have been hunted through the rapids of life, torn from our former roots, always driven to the end and obliged to begin again, victims and yet also the willing servants of unknown mysterious powers, we for whom comfort has become an old legend and security, a childish dream, have felt tension from pole to pole of our being, the terror of something always new in every fibre. Every hour of our years was linked to the fate of the world. In sorrow and in joy we have lived through time and history far beyond our small lives, while they knew nothing beyond themselves. Every one of us, therefore, even the least of the human race, knows a thousand times more about reality today than the wisest of our forebears. But nothing was given to us freely; we paid the price in full.
Zweig left Austria for England in 1934, following Hitler’s accession to power in Germany. In 1939 he and his wife crossed the Atlantic, settling in New York briefly before moving on to a Rio de Janeiro suburb. In February 1942, shortly after delivering the manuscript of The World of Yesterday, Zweig and his wife took their own lives. “[T]o start everything anew after a man’s 60th year,” he wrote in his suicide note, “requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom—the most precious of possessions on this earth.”
The presence at the heart of Central European culture before Hitler’s depredations was a Jewish one, yet Jews and their plight do not enter into The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson has chosen to make his fictional “Zubrowka” an abstraction, and the political upheaval it is undergoing is also an abstraction. We are aware of it only somewhere in the background. Early in the film M. Gustave and Zero look at a newspaper; they pass over the headline, WILL THERE BE WAR? TANKS ON THE BORDER in favor of an article that affects them more immediately. Zero, it seems, is a political immigrant who left his native country because of “the desert uprising”: this would seem to indicate the Arab Revolt of 1916, but the teenaged Zero cannot be old enough to remember back that far. He also says he left his home because of “the war,” and that his home and family were destroyed. What war? Are there echoes here of the Armenian genocide? Again, he’s too young. The military police who rough up Gustave and Zero in a train, and reappear in more sinister circumstances later in the film, wear uniforms reminiscent of the Nazis’—in a musical comedy kind of way, that is. And then what is the benign Edward Norton doing in the role of their chief? Is Anderson fulfilling some special purpose with this odd casting choice, or is he simply making his usual apparently random distribution of roles to his familiar stable of actors (Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Larry Pine, et al.)?
It struck me that with this relegation of what A. O. Scott called the region’s “very ugly history” to the background, Anderson might have been emulating the famous Lubitsch touch, for that master was famous for never being too obvious, for making the high drama occur off-screen. But this is not the case, I think, for when it comes to the action, dialogue and delivery, Anderson’s touch is anything but light. Except for Gustave’s speeches, which Anderson as screenwriter has given a Noël Cowardish veneer, the dialogue is crude as well as anachronistic (“That fucking faggot!” “You goddam little fruit!”). The accents and speech patterns are various, ill-assorted and entirely inappropriate to the time and place, from Harvey Keitel’s broad Brooklynese to Saoirse Ronan’s Irish lilt. And the performances and action can only be called cartoonish. Perhaps this is not surprising from a director whose most critically acclaimed film so far has been a stop-action animation feature (Fantastic Mr. Fox); my companion at The Grand Budapest Hotel, in fact, said it was like a Pixar movie for adults, only with live action. When Gustave and Zero mount a speeding toboggan to escape from their pursuer, a comic-book villain played hammily by Willem Dafoe, the chase scene has about as much reality as Tweety Bird fleeing Sylvester. And while we’re on the subject of that Dafoe villain . . . vampire teeth, spiky hair, leather biker togs . . . At one point, before tearing poor Jeff Goldblum limb from limb but after throwing his cat out the window, he slams Goldblum’s hand in a steel door and all the fingers fall off.
We’re supposed to think that’s funny. Another disquieting moment: because we know who the villains really were in Central Europe in 1932, and they were not comic-book monsters but human, all too human. Why displace evil onto a phony bad guy who looks like he comes right out of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians? Were other moviegoers not offended by this crass refusal to look straight at the history against which such silliness is set?
The real Lubitsch touch was something entirely different. To Be or Not to Be (1942), made during the darkest days of the war when Hitler ruled nearly all of Europe, was something that must have been extraordinarily difficult to achieve at that moment: a farce about Nazism, set in occupied Poland. In the film, a troupe of second-rate actors, led by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, get caught up in the Resistance, and after a series of ridiculous misadventures discover a deep patriotism they never knew they had. As with all of Lubitsch’s movies, the viewer never stops laughing; and as with all of Lubitsch’s movies, the eventual emotional punch comes as a surprise. How did Lubitsch, along with his brilliant screenwriter Melchior Lengyel (a Hungarian Jew, by the bye) address the plight of the Jews? They did it with that Lubitsch touch, never openly discussing it or even using the word—even in a Shakespearean speech it has been cut out. There is a minor player in the Polish acting troupe, one Greenberg (played by the wonderful, sad-faced Felix Bressart, another Central European Jew who emigrated to Hollywood). It is established early on that Greenberg is Jewish: “What you are, I wouldn’t eat,” he says loftily to Jack Benny’s strutting Josef Tura—to which the inevitable reply is, “How dare you call me a ham!” In Tura’s Hamlet, Greenberg is relegated to the lowly role of spear-carrier, though he longs to play Shylock and is constantly rehearsing for the moment his big break will come. “Have we not eyes?” he importunes his friends among the company. “Have we not hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” It is played for laughs, but by the third time we hear the speech, with the theater company becoming more and more dangerously mixed up with the local Nazi functionaries, it becomes sinister, and at the end all of the actors escape to England except—and not everyone will notice this—for Greenberg. Lubitsch did not drive home the message; he didn’t need to.
The only aspect of any Wes Anderson film with this kind of unified vision is the art direction. Everything else might be a mess, but the film always looks good, at least in a curated, precious kind of way. And this is perhaps the real attraction for the legions of Anderson fans. An interesting recent article in the New York Times Home & Garden section described the tremendous influence Anderson has had on décor, clothes, personal style, even weddings. One of the fans interviewed in the article, a woman in her thirties, explained the phenomenon well. “I think, for my age group, it’s nostalgia for something we never experienced. Part of the appeal is how much tech is a part of our lives. In his films, when they take a photo, it’s with an old camera. There’s a typewriter, a pink princess phone. Yet it looks fresh and not like a period piece.” Another Andersonian, an administrator of a Facebook page (“The Rushmore Academy”) dedicated to the master’s work, made another good point. “I think that with decorating your home or planning a wedding, there’s a real expectation and desire for everything to be just so. Especially now with Pinterest and blogs and magazines reinforcing that and showing people the range of creative options. So they dovetail with Wes Anderson’s movies, because his films are the embodiment of that notion of making things just so.”
I can see how The Grand Budapest Hotel might influence personal style. The movie is very much like the gorgeous pale green and pink pastries served up by the movie’s baker, Mendl. It seems to go down easily, melt in the average viewer’s mouth, and leave him with nothing much except a faint, too-sweet aftertaste. But having chosen its historical and geographic setting, Anderson has tacitly laid claim to be providing more than just anodyne entertainment and pretty scenery. There is supposed to be a real subject buried under all this sugary frosting, somewhere. The fact that there is not, that Anderson has made Central Europe in 1932 no more than a quirky and picturesque backdrop for his usual capers, is shameful—especially considering that for the large majority of his viewers the horrors of the 1930s and 40s are so distant, so removed from their lives and concerns, as to have become almost irrelevant. We need this world to be treated with more emotional reality, not less.