Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Mitteleuropa Madness

The credits of Wes Anderson's new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, inform us that it was inspired by the work of Stefan Zweig, the Jewish Austrian author who found fame with, among other works, The World of Yesterday and Beware of Pity. These two titles point to the film's strength, an entertaining pastiche nostalgia that has been carefully drained of sentimentality. The whimsy allows the film to introduce absurd and even callous elements: the hero Gustave's routine swearing and priapism (both odd in a concierge), decapitations and chopped off fingers, and the increasingly Nazi-style uniforms of the soldiers (echoing the similar sartorial evolution in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers). The story opens in the Old Lutz cemetery, reminiscent of other sites of memory like the Jewish cemetery in Prague, and an oblique reference to the coming Holocaust (there's a brief snatch of cantor-style singing).

While the influence of Zweig is overt, the film is a portmanteau of tropes from the wider Mitteleuropa canon, so you can spot the work of many others. The tale is set in the imaginary land of Zubrowka (as in bison grass vodka), a cross between Zenda and the Austro-Hungarian empire, with its love of uniforms, rank and cakes (the state's logo is a near-match for the Nazi Siegrune - another queasy touch). The central location is the eponymous hotel, whose improbable height and 45-degree funicular recall the sanatorium in Thomans Mann's The Magic Mountain. It also directly recalls the Hotel Savoy of Joseph Roth, Zweig's friend and fellow Jewish Austrian author, a tale of estrangement and deracination in the years immediately following World War One, which was set in Lodz (i.e. Lutz).

The farcical plot revoles around the McGuffin of a valuable painting, Boy with Apple, which could be a sly nod to The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin (like Zweig, a suicide in flight from Nazism). The narrative thread is the character of Zero Moustafa, the (presumably Balkan) refugee who becomes a lobby boy and the eventual owner of the hotel, but the hero is Gustave, the hotel concierge, played by Ralph Fiennes as a cross between Charles Boyer and Robert Donat. Fiennes is the motor of the film, a surprisingly physical performance (he often moves the plot with nifty footwork, though more like Groucho Marx than Fred Astaire) combined with Shakespearean verbal dexterity. His cheerful profanity, liberal humanity, attention to detail and sheer energy make him a sort of anti-Hitler.

The young Zero, played by Tony Revolori, and his girlfriend/wife Agatha, played by Saoirse Ronan, are stock symbols of innocence and hope. His name implies the social worth of the immigrant, the fresh start of the refugee, and also perhaps the reset of civilisation that the First World War was widely felt to mark. Gustave is shot, off-stage, by the forces of order/barbarism. Zero inherits his newly-acquired wealth, but his happiness is cut short by Agatha's death from "the Prussian Gryp". This shows Anderson's lack of sentimentality, making a joke out of the calamity-upon-calamity of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Like the digging tools encased in Mendl's confectionery that Agatha smuggles to Gustave in jail, there is hard reality buried beneath the sweetness.

It was predictable that the anniversary of 1914 would lead to a renewed interest in all things fin de siecle and Mitteleuropean (Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery in London is a current example). Anderson's film is chock-full of wider cultural references, from the assassin Jopling, a comedy Nietzschean played by Willem Dafoe in layers of leather and stack-heeled boots, to the Sigmund Freud-alike Deputy Kovacs, played by Jeff Goldblum, who suffers symbolic death (his cat gets it) and castration (the severed fingers) before his actual death after being pursued through a museum. The meta-trope is ambiguity: the degree to which Austria-Hungary was itself a victim of World War One, and the degree to which the Dual Monarchy was a seed-bed of the anti-democratic and antisemitic forces that would lead to World War Two.

Though notionally set in the 30s, the film happily mixes up allusions from different decades and film history. The Egon Schiele painting that is switched for Boy with Apple is a pastiche in modern porn style; Zubrowka is a near neighbour of Duck Soup's Freedonia; the ridiculously complicated jail break is The Great Escape compressed into 5 minutes; Owen Wilson's cameo as Monsieur Chuck looks like a nod to Hemingway (and perhaps an in-joke re Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris). Murray F. Abraham, as the mature Zero telling the tale of Gustave, echoes his role as Salieri telling the tale of Mozart in Milos Forman's Amadeus.

The theatrical plot and mannered style of the film allow Anderson to give full rein to his directorial OCD: symmetry, repetition and serial order feature heavily. The cutting from close-up to near-microscopic distance in the snowy chase sequence is an example of his habit of transitioning from models (or reality made to look like a model) to reality (composed as if in a diorama). The colours are rich and extensive, the vibrant purples, reds and ochres of the hotel contrasting with the dull greys and blacks of officialdom. The pink of Mendl's cake-boxes echoes the pink of the hotel's exterior: the move between small and large again.

The secret fraternity of concierges (the Society of Crossed Keys), that Gustave calls on for help, is Anderson's world in microcosm: a rigid formula incorporating huge variety. That could, of course, stand for the Austro-Hungarian empire itself, which perhaps explains Anderson's sympathy for Zweig and his ilk. The critic James Wood, in discussing Joseph Roth, talked of the empire as a form of rhetoric: it needed to be constantly performed ("the comfort of repetition") to have any reality. The Grand Budapest Hotel catches that sense of performativity, while evoking the buttery richness of its physical world (cakes are eaten but the characters are mostly greyhound slim, like figures in a Schiele painting).

It might appear odd that an American film-maker should have such a passion for Mitteleuropa, but this actually completes a circle of sorts. Joseph Roth experienced the traumatic transition into modernity that is the source of nostalgia, moving from poverty in the semi-feudal Galicia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire via Vienna and Berlin to end his days an alcoholic in Paris in 1939. In contrast, the wealthy Zweig made the shorter journey from bourgeois Vienna to London (like Freud) and from there to New York and finally Brazil where he died in 1942. Roth didn't make it to America, except in his fictional Job (subtitled A Simple Man and perhaps an inspiration for the Coen Brothers A Serious Man, which starts in a shtetl somewhere in the vicinity of Galicia), despite invitations. He appears to have considered the USA a modernist step too far, particularly Hollywood, which was busy commodifying a pastiche of Mitteleuropa during the 30s in the form of light opera and horror stories.

Anderson's apparent preference for Zweig over Roth is ultimately a matter of moral seriousness. As Roth said to Zweig: "You are lucky enough … not to be able to see certain depths of darkness, yes, you avert your eye ... You may be smart, but your humanity blinds you to others' wickedness. You live on goodness and faith. Whereas I have been known to make startlingly accurate observations about evil". What is interesting about The Grand Budapest Hotel is how much of Roth, that appreciation of underlying evil, bubbles up through the candyfloss of Zweig, despite Anderson's evident pleasure in the superficial. It is this hard edge that makes the film more than just Carry On Der Rosenkavalier.

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