A Faraway World of Yesterday
In the land of Zubrowka, a lavish, modern hotel is host to crowned heads and the ultra-rich. Residing high in the mountains, virtually a rebuke to the humble Eastern European milieu that surrounds it, the Grand Budapest Hotel is a beacon of luxury and civility in a world poised on the brink of war, just about to topple into barbarism. Set apart on its mountaintop, the Grand Budapest Hotel is a symbol of centuries-old ideals: our collective ability to carve culture and comfort out of the worst aspects of human nature. In channeling certain concepts and moods drawn from Austrian modernist Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson is able to revisit a crisis point in modernity, specifically the outbreak of World War II, with a casual and perplexing distance that in no way approaches irony or a mocking historical interpretation. Instead, Anderson treats the “world of yesterday” by occupying this period from a distinct distance but with undeniable sincerity and curiosity.
The film employs a triple-timeline structure with regard to the receding past. In a 1985 timeline, we see a young girl reading a book by “the author,” whom we will meet in two different guises. As an elderly man, he will begin to tell us of his arrival at the Grand Budapest in the 60’s, where he will meet the aging Mr. Moustafa. This meeting will occasion the flashback that serves as the film’s main narrative, as Moustafa recalls his youthful apprenticeship at the hotel in the 30’s run-up to World War II, and his mentor, the legendary concierge M. Gustave. There is added contrast between these frames in terms of physical vision, as Anderson made the decision to use three different aspect ratios to represent each of the different time frames: 1.85 for the 80’s, 2.40 widescreen for the 60’s, and 1.37 Academy ratio for the 30’s. This is indeed an impressive bit of formalism, since Anderson is doing more here than simply mimicking the visual proportions of movie images contemporary to the scenes depicted. He is creating a material match between the history the film represents and the cinema’s means for representing it.
In this regard, Anderson is sculpting with memory. The formal structures of the film operate throughout, so we never forget that the past, and human memory of the past, are inextricably connected. This compositional style is at work in various historical frames but it’s in the 30’s that this composure becomes a part of a larger argument about historical memory and the crisis of human understanding. The first time we see the the Grand Budapest, it is clearly a miniature model, with a tiny cable car moving up a wire into the sculpted “mountains.” This artifice speaks directly to the childlike nostalgia Anderson’s films have evoked in the past. Here the model serves a very different purpose, however. We are entering this “past” through the unavoidably false gateway image, one that marks the recollections to follow as historical fictions, the memories of people...