It’s a Small, Strange World

Wes Anderson’s latest picture Grand Budapest Hotel has been widely praised by critics for exposing more of the melancholy that has lined all of his ventures. With its allusions to the rise of fascism in the 1930s, and the fate of Eastern Europe’s smaller nations after both World Wars, the film definitely comes closer to delivering the sort of message many found lacking in his previous work. But this perception of increased earnestness also opens Anderson up to criticism that he had avoided until now by studiously avoiding reference to the “big picture.” Because, let’s face it, no matter how assiduously a film about life under totalitarianism zooms in for close-ups, prioritizing characters over context, it will still be held to an epic standard.

Does the story do justice to the millions who perished for ideological reasons? Is its moral position sufficiently clear? Are we able to understand the motivations of the ordinary people who failed to resist brutal regimes and those brave individuals who did? What about the demagogues who led these nations?

Given the whimsy for which Anderson has been both celebrated and derided — few filmmakers are more polarizing — the likelihood that Grand Budapest Hotel would meet these criteria was slim. And that’s a big reason why many of the director’s fans, myself included, responded unenthusiastically to the picture’s early trailer. It suggested that he had, for once, been unable to scale his ambitions down to a manageable size.

Like a dollhouse made of sugar
Like a dollhouse made of sugar

If there had been a common denominator in his previous work, aside from the repeated use of certain actors — Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman — it was the feeling, powerfully reinforced by certain visual tics, that each story represented a world in miniature. To be sure, Anderson’s detractors expressed annoyance at being asked to look again and again through the wrong end of the telescope. But his loyal fans, whose numbers have been growing steadily since the surprise success of Rushmore, delighted in his seemingly inexhaustible facility for turning adult problems into child’s play.

Simply put, such a talent appeared to be starkly at odds with the gravity of the Holocaust or its Stalinist correlate. And there are no doubt those who will find this assessment confirmed in Grand Budapest Hotel, which not only delivers the exquisitely detailed mise-en-scène for which Anderson is famous, but even invites us to compare it to the confectioner’s art. Personally, while I can see reasons to take issue with the film, I was so completely won over by its curiously effective fusion of sincerity and self-reflexivity that I didn’t want to.

There’s a reason Anderson shows us the luscious desserts of the renowned bakery Mendl’s being used to smuggle pickaxes into the prison where its hero, the concierge Gustave H., played by Ray Fiennes, is held captive. We see the guard inspecting the food that comes into this facility slice various items in half, looking for contraband, but then stop short at the prospect of doing violence to one of Mendl’s creations. The parallel to the filmmaker’s art is clear: sometimes preciousness can reach places that more utilitarian techniques cannot.

A confectionary conspiracy
A confectionary conspiracy

Assuming we give Grand Budapest Hotel the benefit of the doubt in this regard, the picture’s reluctance to engage politics indirectly can be considered a virtue. Most of the truly disturbing events happen off screen, often revealed long after the fact. And the nested frames of the narration — the present day, then 1985, then 1968, then the main narrative that takes place in the 1930s — further distance the audience from the story’s traumatic core.

The effect, interestingly, is similar to the one that W.G. Sebald achieves in books like The Emigrants and, most impressively, Austerlitz. Sometimes it can be hard to remember the undercurrents shaping the author’s storytelling, because the play of light on the surface is so compelling. But when we do suddenly perceive that inexorable flow, the impact is all the more powerful for not being constantly on our minds. For moviegoers not turned off by Anderson’s stylistic approach, Grand Budapest Hotel manages this feat with aplomb.

When I walked out of the theater after seeing the film, I at first found myself unable to think about it analytically, because it had moved me so. Yet I’d never had the sense during the picture that it was affecting me to that extent; my attention, rather, was directed to the profusion of details Anderson is able to highlight: the way the hotel’s interior in the 1968 sequence so perfectly captures the color schemes of that era; the fabricated artworks that so effectively conjure their real-world inspiration; the excesses of different characters’ attire. If a film about an imaginary country in Eastern Europe can transform a Tucson, Arizona parking lot into a haunted landscape, flooding me with memories good and bad, I figure it must be doing something right.

Taking Old Europe for a ride
Taking Old Europe for a ride

Once I’d collected my thoughts, however, I found myself wondering whether the intensity of my response didn’t also suggest a line of critique. Although Anderson may not seem like a particularly American director, particularly when compared with fellow post-Baby Boomer auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh or Richard Linklater, there’s something about the consistency of his craft that makes his work ripe for decontextualization. Wherever his films are set — New York City, India or, here, in the made-up country of Zubrowka — they ultimately seem to deploy that place as a means instead of end.

That might not matter so much in the case of films like Moonrise Kingdom or Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it has potentially profound consequences in the case of Grand Budapest Hotel. To be sure, Anderson’s decision to depart from literal geography is meant as a tribute to Depression Era movies, such as the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, that were more or less forced to use invented European locales to avoid running afoul of national censors. Yet it also threatens to deprive his story of the specificity that could prevent careless repurposing, not to mention appearing to reinforce the geographical ignorance for which Americans are notorious worldwide.

It could be argued, in fact, that Anderson’s fondness for scale-model worlds actually corresponds rather closely to the problem with American foreign policy since World War II, which has treated the world like a strategy game and most of its inhabitants like pieces instead of people. When he was confining himself to landscapes close to home, this parallel wasn’t so apparent. But the subject matter of Grand Budapest Hotel and the timing of its release, in the midst of the crisis in the Ukraine, threatens to show us a more sinister, if largely unconscious, aspect to his aesthetic program.

This judgment may seem harsh. It certainly feels that way to me. I think it is important, however, not to reject it out of hand. Because if we are willing to entertain the possibility that Anderson has been concealing pickaxes in his cinematic confections from the get-go, we must also ask what kind of freedom they promise us. After all, the atrocities the United States has committed in the name of that word are many and continue to mount.

Fascism takes the cake
Fascism takes the cake

For my part, although I am wary both of Anderson’s inclination to miniaturize and my own positive reaction to that approach, I take solace in his clear preference for misfits. Yes, the song from that 1964 New York World’s Fair and, subsequently, Disneyland attraction may be on auto-repeat in my head — “It’s a small world, after all. . .” — but my mind’s eye is drawn to those parts of the ride that don’t really make geographical or political sense, the odd juxtapositions and incongruities that turn that fantasy of leveling difference into something stranger and more hopeful, drawing our attention not to what we have in common, but what remains beyond it.

It matters that Grand Budapest Hotel’s Gustave H. is a self-made man who plays havoc with heterosexual stereotypes. It matters that his sidekick, heir and first commemorator is from an unspecified Islamic land, from which he has fled after a war that deprived him of both home and family. And it matters, too, that the fictional Zubrowka is a place that reminds us of various European locations without ever quite matching any of them. Even if much of the film’s American audience misses the way Grand Budapest Hotel keeps deliberately missing its mark, the reasons why it is doing so, Anderson’s fundamental preference for eccentricity, will still come through loud and clear. It’s a small world, yes, but also one that is always already off-center.


Film stills courtesy of Wes Anderson.

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