This review was originally published in the March 26th, 2014 edition of the Florida International University newspaper The Beacon.
Directed by American auteur Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel (written by Anderson from a story by Anderson and Hugo Guinness, and inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig) tells the story of Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) telling the story of his life as a hotel bell boy under the command of M. Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes). A story of murder, fascism, dessert, and a valuable painting, it is told to a young writer (Jude Law) thirty-six years later in the very same hotel where Moustafa as a young man (Tony Revolori) worked.
The story jumps through three main time periods, starting in 1985 where the author of The Grand Budapest Hotel (Tom Wilkinson) is telling the audience the story of how, in 1968, he went to the Grand Budapest and came across its owner (Moustafa), who then told him his story regarding the hotel and the incident that lead him to owning it, among other things.
Preservation is a key theme that runs throughout Grand Budapest, as Gustav (Fiennes) and Zero (Revolori) must not only keep the hotel in line but also keep a bequeathed painting out of the hands of dangerous individuals. However, it isn’t just the painting that the characters attempt to preserve. During the course of the film, war is on the brink and a fascist group gets closer to taking over the country. While one could easily link this with actual fascist regimes of the 1930s, it works on its own as a representation of how preservation of anything in life is sometimes impossible. The character of Gustav, for example, wants to not only preserve his hotel and its standing, but his own way of life, one which seems to be in contrast with his contemporary time. Contrast this with Zero, whose way of life before the hotel was abolished by war, so he could only look forward with the understanding that not everything in life can be preserved.
While the painting’s ownership and its importance are what drive the plot along, it also works as a simple McGuffin that allows the filmmaker to take notice of other important things that occur during the on-going chase. We see the relationship that forms between a concierge and his pupil, as Gustav and Zero must help one another in different ways. We also bear witness to the ruthlessness of the villains Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and Jopling (Willem Dafoe) as they go out of their way to silence certain individuals in their quest for the painting. There is also the ever important romance that blooms between Zero and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), which does in-fact play a large role in the film’s overall story.
Wes Anderson’s writing talents are top notch in Grand Budapest, from showing aforementioned character interactions to playing around with dialogue, ideologies, and parallels in a fictional country. He’s able to come up with many, many characters that are always important to some degree, whether it be someone who can mastermind a break out (Harvey Keitel) to someone who can help our main characters out of a jam (Bill Murray). Even though many of these characters get little screen time (Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton), their importance (as well as their performances) are never undermined or underutilized; it’s their importance to the plot that elevates their statuses from merely being cameos.
On the technical side of things, Anderson uses excellent models and sets (as well as the country of Germany itself) to help create the world of Zubrowka that houses all these characters. This world comes off as colorful and whimsical, like a sort of make-believe country that serves as a microcosm of 1930s Europe. Anderson is also well known for using widescreen and taking advantage of every part the wide frame offers. While a total of three aspect ratios are used in Grand Budapest (1.37 in the ‘30s, 1.78 in the ‘80s, 2.35 in the ‘60s), majority of the film is presented in the Academy Ratio (1.37, essentially 4:3). This can be seen as a drastic change for the filmmaker (and for how his films are typically portrayed), but Anderson uses this ratio for all its worth, never wasting a shot or keeping things unnecessarily hidden. Anderson is able to use this square frame masterfully, and even in the scenes shot in 2.35 (a ratio more commonly associated with his films) he utilizes every frame that the screen allows (one scene in particular of the ‘60s concierge popping into the frame for a sole second is priceless).
The Grand Budapest Hotel triumphs as Wes Anderson’s best written and best directed film yet, with excellent performances that flesh out the characters and the world that surrounds them. At the center of all the colors, the architecture, the eccentrics, and the humor (both light and dark), lies a picture full of warmth, memories, and soul – It stands as Anderson’s most complete portrait.