None of the characters within struck me as acting as a direct surrogate for Wes Anderson, but its clear he shares a kinship with the staff of the Grand Budapest Hotel.
The story is buried in four layers of flashbacks. A girl sits in a cemetery to read the masterpiece of an author beside his gravestone. It’s covered in keys. We then jump back into the mid-eighties where the elderly author recounts writing the novel. Almost immediately we go further back in time to the author’s mid-life in the mid twentieth century. He’s checked himself into the Grand Budapest Hotel as a salve for his nerves. The hotel clearly has seen better days. The furniture is misaligned, worn, simple, utilitarian. The halls are lit by harsh fluorescent lights, in ceilings that seem too low for the space. This is strange in an Anderson film. Items from the mid-twentieth century are generally treated with the utmost reverence, appreciated for their beauty long after outliving their usefulness. But this is the first time these objects are shown in their own time.
By chance the author forms a friendship with the mysterious owner of The Grand Budapest, Zero Mustapha. Once famous for his fantastic fortune Mustapha lives as a semi recluse, only venturing into society to periodically stay at the hotel, and then sleeping in the servants quarters. After an encounter, Mustapha offers to recount the tale to the author.
If you can imagine the aristocracy surviving past Renoir’s Grand Illusion, the circuit of hotels may be their last refuge. Some maintain their fortunes, but all retain their influence and their hereditary place in society. Through his role as concierge Gustav commands an undue measure of soft power for a man of low birth. He beds the old dowagers and duchesses and devotes himself to earning their confidence.
When Madame D, one Gustav’s paramours dies, he travels to her estate with Zero in tow to pay respects. Everyone is shocked to find that the Madame D has left the concierge the painting “Boy with Apple”, by far her most valuable asset. Soon Gustav is suspected of murder and finds himself pursued by the authorities and Jopling (Willem Dafoe), the merciless thug employed by Dimitri (Adrian Brody), Madame D’s bloodless son.
Anderson invests his meticulous care to Grand Budapest’s surprising brutal world. This is a whole country willed into existence at a crucial point in world history though it purposefully seems apart from even its stated era. The small, anonymous countries, soon to be absorbed into their larger neighbors; the declining aristocracy in ostentatious baroque settings; these are hallmarks of the build-up to World War I, not World War II. Its the difference between the aforementioned Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, the latter depicting the frills of the soulless higher class with an eye towards modernization.
Anderson’s films set talent, privilege, and acceptance in a dance. None of his characters ever attain more than two of the traits, some never attain any of the three despite their efforts.
We’ve seen the sadness of genius in all of Anderson’s works, but Budapest is his first film to follow the arc of a lifetime. None of his truly gifted characters ever lose their melancholy, but we’ve only seen them in childhood. Their situation does not improve with age.
It’s clear that among the characters, Gustav has the most personal relationship with “Boy with Apple”. To him its not so much a painting as the personification of the ideal aristocrat. He can’t help but ask if he shares any resemblance with the pale skinned boy with fair hair and blue eyes. It’s worth mentioning that Madame D’s actual family look nothing like the boy in the painting, all of them raven-haired and grotesque in features.
Gustav’s sentiment is shared in his era. “Boy with Apple” is considered priceless, the sole possession of Madame D’s worth any money. This assessment also includes a vulgar painting in the style of Toulouse Lautrec or Otto Dix that Gustav replaces with “Boy with Apple”. We find during the course of the film that “Boy with Apple” will be forgotten by the modern day. It’s an irony that in the modern world that vulgar painting would’ve ascended to “priceless” status as it represents the dark side of a society about to embark on wars of mechanized genocide rather than the aspirations of those wishing to ascend into its fading aristocracy.
But this is the larger theme underneath “The Grand Budapest Hotel”: every generation values something entirely different from the last. If Gustav saw the hotel as a means of joining the aristocracy, the officers who use it as a barracks see it as cementing their brief period as a ruling class. Zero maintains the hotel far after its usefulness in society as a mausoleum to a lost love. The group of children, apparently of Zero’s ethnicity, that surround the middle-aged author suggest that the effect of meeting Zero and learning the story inspired him to offer other less fortunate a chance and a home. The keys on the monument to the author could indicate that the most resonant portion of his novel was the “Society of Crossed Keys” or the culture of hotels of the period.