Director Wes Anderson is waging a twee war on imperialism and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
- By Jake Scobey-ThalJake Scobey-Thal is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy. Previously, he worked as a freelance reporter in Myanmar and as the Asia Associate for Human Rights Watch. His articles have appeared in The Nation, Next City magazine, and Salon among others. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
The concierge, an attendant, and the newly-hired lobby boy — all three donning the hotel’s royal purple uniforms — ride up a bright red elevator. Sitting down with his hands on his knees, the concierge (the only one seated) looks up at his new hire. "Why do you want to be a lobby boy?" he asks. "Who wouldn’t?" the boy responds, looking earnest with his pressed suit and his drawn-on mustache, "at the Grand Budapest Hotel, sir."
No doubt, The Grand Budapest Hotel is peak Wes Anderson. The film, which will be released nationwide Friday, tells the story of this concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel, Monsieur Gustave H., (played by Ralph Fiennes), and his loyal lobby boy Zero, (played primarily by Tony Revolori), as they work together to prove Gustave’s innocence after he is accused of a crime he did not commit. Gustave, flamboyant and flirtatious, is the heart of the film and, not coincidently, the heart of the superlative hotel.
As the hotel’s concierge, Gustave not only ensures that its elite clientele have everything they need — particularly if the guests happen to be wealthy, blond octogenarians — he is also the guarantor of the Grand Budapest’s grandeur. At play in the background are Anderson’s traditional riffs — the film’s fanciful caper plot is buoyed by absurdist dialogue, elegant set design, and, of course, the dark, bespectacled genius of Jeff Goldblum. But The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t just harpsichord montages and spritzes of L’Air de Panache (Gustave’s favorite scent). Beneath the stylized surfaces, Anderson is making a statement about our politics.
The film unravels through the memories of Zero, who narrates the harrowing events at the Grand Budapest in 1932 to an unnamed author over dinner at the hotel in the late 1960s. The hotel they meet in is a shell of its former self — rooms go unoccupied, the furnishings are decaying after years of neglect, and, perhaps most alarmingly, the concierge is lazy. But through Zero’s recounting Anderson quickly jumps back in time to the hotel’s bright, busy, pre-war heyday. And it is here that the audience is first introduced to M. Gustave.
The story commences: Gustave is accused of a crime. There is a chase scene. And another chase scene. Jeff Goldblum does Jeff Goldblum things. And the angels sing. The plot comes to a head just as fascist forces declare war, occupying Zubrowka. And while Gustave is eventually vindicated, Zubrowka and the beloved Grand Budapest never recover.
But the film is more than just another hat trick for the magician of whimsy. The Grand Budapest Hotel crystallizes Anderson’s own brand of foreign policy — one he has quietly articulated throughout his canon. The film, which takes place in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka at the outbreak of "the war" in 1932, is about the Europe that was lost even after the Allies won. In telling the story of the demise of the continent’s greatest fictional hotel, Anderson articulates a vision of international politics — sadly prescient amid the recent events in Crimea — that brings to light the costs of global imperialism.
In the world of Wes Anderson, Zubrowka ("Once the seat of an Empire!") is very real. Zero’s narrative of M. Gustave is memorialized in a memoir by the unnamed author to be read by subsequent generations of Zubrowkans. You can even take an online course entitled "The Republic of Zubrowka Before the War: A Central European Case Study of Social, Political, and Cultural Upheaval." The course, organized by the Zubrowka Akademie Historic Library, offers three lessons for the neophyte Zubrowka scholar: an overview of the tourism industry, an intellectual history of the region, and an analysis of social consequences of the war.
The Grand Budapest Hotel’s story is not fantasy — at least not entirely. The film’s Europe is clearly rooted in the real thing. Anderson has stated publicly that the film pulls elements from the writing of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian-Jewish writer who fled central Europe in 1934. The characters’ names — Gustave, Serge, Ludwig — carry a distinctly Austro-German flavor appropriate to the alpine mountains in which the story takes place. The "war," which in the film begins in 1932, is a proxy for World War II. (Through the Zubrowka Akademie’s course we also learn that the region was host to a previous war 20 years earlier.) The latter conflict’s aggressors, who occupy the Grand Budapest in their conquest of Zubrowka, wear all black — their insignia, cutting like white lightening bolts against a black background, is a stylized SS. There’s no mistaking these cues. Wes Anderson made a movie about Nazis and he wants us to know it.
But fascism, of course, is easy to criticize. To be sure, the film seeks to unpack the destructive legacy of European militarism, but the Anderson Doctrine is not simply about armies. Imperialism is a big tent — the director imbues his critique of armed intervention with his more traditional target: global capitalism.
One of the lessons in "The Republic of Zubrowka Before the War" explains the history of the Lutz School. "Zubrowka was, at that time, the center of the greatest cosmopolitan culture in the Western Hemisphere. The Lutz School included the most influential thinkers and writers on the continent." The fictionalized Lutz School is a nod to the Frankfurt School, which was based out of the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University, and was made up of social theorists in the early 20th century. The thinkers, most of whom were Jews, were staunch critics of the ascendant Nazi Party. The school eventually migrated to New York City after Hitler rose to power. But the collective’s ideology was also based in neo-Marxism, espousing a fundamental critique of capitalism in their pursuit of social change.
In tipping his hat to the Frankfurt School, Wes Anderson has aligned himself with a similar brand of politics. The director’s own anti-imperialist manifesto not only rejects political fascism, but also, as Marx termed capitalism, "the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie."
The Grand Budapest Hotel, like many of Anderson’s earlier works, villainizes the rich. M. Gustave’s foils are the malevolent trust-fund babies of one of the hotel’s most loyal patrons (played by Tilda Swinton). Anderson lampoons the Grand Budapest’s elite clientele while deifying its lowly lobby boy. Fantastic Mr. Fox relies on a similar moral dichotomy. The protagonist in Anderson’s 2009 stop-motion animated film is Mr. Fox (whose voice is provided by George Clooney) who steals food from the wealthy and malicious farmers. After discovering that Mr. Fox has pilfered their produce, the farmers repeatedly try to kill Mr. Fox as well as his family.
Anderson’s films often explore alienation among the 1 percent. In Rushmore, Bill Murray plays Herman Blume, a multimillionaire who has become unsatisfied with the life his fortune has bought. In one of the 1998 film’s early scenes, Blume gives a speech to the boys of Rushmore Academy, an elite private elementary school. "You guys have it real easy," he tells them. "I never had it like this where I grew up. But I send my kids here because the fact is you go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore. Now, for some of you it doesn’t matter. You were born rich and you’re going to stay rich. But here’s my advice to the rest of you: Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget it."
While the film’s director, like the character Herman Blume, has no problem taking direct "aim on the rich boys," the Anderson Doctrine also critiques the structures of economic inequality the rich boys perpetuate. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) chronicles a filmmaker’s quest to document a Jaguar shark. In one scene, the team’s boat is boarded by Filipino pirates. Zissou, played by Bill Murray, and his crew are tied up as the armed pirates steal the ship’s cash reserves and pick out their hostages. "Be cool on this shit, Cubby," Zissou says to the journalist documenting the trip. "I mean at least try to show both sides." The Filipino pirates aren’t just bad guys with guns. Rather they are the products of low wages and limited employment opportunities in the developing world.
Anderson integrates a range of other ideologies into his foreign policy. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the protagonist and his neighbors are forced underground after the farmers destroy their home. Fearing starvation, Fox tunnels out toward the farm (humanitarian corridors, anyone?). The bond between Gustave and Zero is strengthened when its revealed that Zero is not simply an opportunistic immigrant, but a refugee, fleeing a brutal war in his home country. The Darjeeling Limited — Anderson’s 2007 film following three estranged brothers as they travel through India — is basically a 90-minute treatise against Western Orientalism and gap years.
But always at the core of the Anderson Doctrine is the desire to strike back at imperialism.
In an early scene in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave and Zero are taking the train back to the mountains of Zubrowka. The locomotive grounds to a halt at a security check point. With Zubrowka on the brink of war, local police burst into the cabin to check the passengers’ paperwork. Carrying only his immigrant visa, insufficient to work in the country, Zero is pushed against the cabin wall as his protective boss jostles with the police. The two are then saved by the lead officer, Inspector Henckels (played by Ed Norton), who remembers Gustave from when he was a frequent guest at the Grand Budapest as a child. "You see?" Gustave says to Zero, "there are glimpses of decency in this slaughterhouse that we used to call humanity." Perhaps not all is lost, but Europe has cannibalized itself — and the Grand Budapest, as we see jumping forward to 1960s, will never be the same.
While The Grand Budapest Hotel specifically takes on post-war Europe, the breadth of Anderson’s canon covers a much broader scope of political commentary. Pushing back against the legacy of neo-colonial adventurism and unregulated free markets, Anderson — in all of his Technicolor glory — makes a fundamentally moral argument about our foreign-policy choices. Sure, some realists may have a bone to pick, but with Russian President Vladimir Putin flexing his muscles in Ukraine, the world facing a refugee crisis, and an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, maybe a little more whimsy is exactly what we need.