The Philosophy of The Grand Budapest Hotel (Pop Cultural Studies)

In the modern day, a girl reads a book. The Old Author wrote the book in 1985, about when he was a young author. The book takes place in the Grand Budapest Hotel of the 1960’s, and tells of the Young Author meeting Old Zero Mustafa, and the story that Old Zero relays to him. Old Zero tells us the story of an adventure from when he was a young man…

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I think people can greatly exaggerate the effect of movies or media on their lives. It’s easy to think of in terms of books, as the majority of books/movies/art will entertain you and perhaps change your outlook on books/movies/art, but won’t change your outlook on life. Looking through my favorites shelf on Goodreads, I struggle to think how a lot of these books have changed me as a person. On the other hand, consider George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book that can actually change your life by changing the way you think about governments and corporations. These kind of books-movies-etc. are the exception more than they are the rule, but when a movie or a book or any art speaks to you on such a level, it feels like magic.

So that’s what brings me to Wes Anderson’s 2014 comedy-drama-adventure classic; Grand Budapest Hotel changed my life, and it changed my outlook on the world.

Grand Budapest Hotel is a movie that is simultaneously hilarious and compelling. It’s beautifully shot, and its characters seem so wonderfully-developed to the point where they’re larger than life.

At the end of last year, my friend Hugh and I picked our favorite movie from each year in the 2010’s, and it was pretty neat because of the way it indicated just how different our tastes are, but there was one year on which we agreed: 2014, for which we both picked The Grand Budapest Hotel. I don’t just think this was just the best movie of 2014, but perhaps the best of the last ten years.

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(I made this GIF for an earlier post and I will use it on every occasion I can)

The plot at the center of Grand Budapest is pulpy fun, while also being delightfully whimsical. It’s a thrilling tale involving a murder, stolen art, a large inheritance, a dangerous hit man, and a prison escape. The story was inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, author of books such as Chess Story and The World of Yesterday. Getting to that central plot is kind of convoluted, and IMDb simply describes it as “The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka between the first and second World Wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.” That’s vague, but enough of an explanation to get away with before getting into what the most sensitive audiences would call spoilers.

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But since we’ll be discussing spoilers in this post, a brief plot outline would actually be rather useful.

  • Madame D. (Short for Desgoffe und Taxis) elderly hotel patron confides to her lover and hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave that she’s feeling afraid. Gustave then shares this with his new apprentice, Zero.
  • It comes out that Madame D. has been found dead, and at a public reading of her will, it’s discovered that she left a priceless Renaissance painting to Gustave. Her family, including the evil-looking Dimitri, is pissed off.
  • After stealing and hiding the painting, the police arrive to arrest Gustave for the alleged murder of Madame D.
  • With the help of a secret society of Hotel Concierges, Zero helps Gustave escape from prison.
  • After a thrilling mountain chase scene, Gustave and Zero track down Serge, Madame D’s butler who informs him that there is an updated copy of the will hidden somewhere, before he’s suddenly murdered by Dimitri’s hired killer.
  • At the Hotel, Zero’s girlfriend, Agatha, helps secure the painting, which has the new copy of the will. There’s a shootout, but everyone survives, and the updated will leaves everything – including the Hotel – to Gustave.
  • Zero marries Agatha, and everyone lives happily ever after.
  • Except, they don’t.
  • In an epilogue, it’s briefly mentioned that Gustave was killed by the military while standing up for Gustave, and that Agatha and their infant child.
  • Oh, Y I K E S

So yes, this movie technically ends on a total downer. When viewed as a whole picture, the glum ending feels jarring compared to the rest of the movie. Grand Budapest is so colorful that the world feels delightful and beautiful – this worldview is bolstered by Wes Anderson’s highly symmetrical cinematography. After seeing the delights of this world, after experiencing the thrills of the plot, after the happy ending, the death of Gustave, Agatha, and Zero’s son feels like an afterthought, but in reality, it adds an incredible pathos to Zero’s retelling of the story to the Young Author.

That brings me back to the frame narrative. Zero, in the 1960’s, reflects on his adventures in the 1930’s, as he tells the story to the young author (played by Jude Law). Finally putting it in print in the 1980’s, the Old Author (played by Tom Wilkinson), writes a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. In the modern day, a young woman reads The Grand Budapest Hotel next to a memorial of the Author.

The Young Author asks Zero if he kept the hotel to maintain his connection to Gustave and his “banished world,” and Zero responds that such a connection wouldn’t have been necessary saying that he and Gustave “shared a vocation,” before clarifying:

“The Hotel I keep for Agatha. We were happy here, for a little while. To be frank, I think [Gustave’s] world had vanished long before he ever entered it, but I will say, he maintained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”

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The movie’s backward-looking frame narrative shows us people who are grieving, and that, in the later parts of their lives. It gives us a look into the lives of people who have nothing left but memories of a happier time.

As I said at the beginning, this movie – the older Zero Mustafa in particular – has actually taught me quite a lot. Namely, this:

At some point, all things come to an end. A loved one or beloved pet may die. A relationship might end. A favorite local business may close. A band that meant a lot to you may break up. Bad things can happen, and eventually will happen, and part of life is needing to accept that. In turn, The Grand Budapest Hotel taught me a way to combat that: to relive through memory. At the end of things we love, we have the memory of them. And in that, we have something to relish.

I sometimes see this same sentiment conveyed in different ways. One of my favorite Lumineers songs has the lyric “It’s better to feel pain / than nothing at all,” and poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” And to hear those phrases said is one thing, but at the end of Grand Budapest you absolutely feel it much more clearly. It comes across when F. Murray Abraham delivers the line about Gustave: “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity… He was one of them. What more is there to say?”

It borders on cliche to say that a funeral should be a celebration of life rather than a sad occasion, but that seems to be part of the great kernel of truth at the center of this film. Grand Budapest Hotel shows that you can both mourn and celebrate someone by telling stories about them.

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Essentially, it is not enough just to say “Carpe Diem. Part of life is living beyond tragedy, and learning how to live with memories. To hold onto the good memories we have, and to share them whenever we can with others; to remember the good times as a means of surviving the bad times.

“It was an enchanting old ruin. But I never managed to see it again.”

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