On The Grand Budapest Hotel
I saw one of the most beautiful films of the year this past week, Wes Anderson's masterful The Grand Budapest Hotel. It includes his usual fanciful flourishes and is utterly imbued with nostalgia. Unlike his past films which were more focused on inner family dramas, the main characters in this film are without family. Instead, Anderson steps out to convey the life of a hotel concierge Gustav H. (R. Feines), and his young lobby boy Zero (T. Revolori), who are caught in the throws of a verisimilar early twentieth century. The story is told from the perspective of the elder Zero, known as Mr. Mustafa (M. Abraham). The drama arises not simply from the contrast between a fading occidental civilization and new modern barbarism, but between Gustav H. and himself. One of Gustav's early pedagogical overtures to the young Zero, expresses the tension:
Anderson is sometimes referred to as a postmodern director. It's a term that focuses upon his aforementioned penchant for fanciful nostalgia and introverted insularity. It strikes me that this attribution misses the deeper sense of pain that drove his earlier work. The various philosophical and theological movements variously called postmodern did, in some cases, lose sight of this pain. However, the idea that postmodernity ends in today's austere times, overlooks the deeper exteriority at work in the "post," in these movements. It explains the return of metaphysics, not as an alter ego of philosophical absolutism, but a more profound "after" physics, and the sense in which meta always implies a deeper dissatisfaction with reductive physical accounts of reality. Moral, ethical and political dimensions can no longer be reduced to physics after the holocaust. Rather, we are more directly returned to a fragile notion of civilization laid bare in the twentieth century's darkest moments. As Gianni Vattimo argued in a compendium on religion, it too returns in these gaping unhealed wounds.
Anderson's recent film shows the twilight between a long gone past and the new barbarisms we live with today. He does so not with an historical farce, as such, but a personal story of one man who took responsibility for maintaining the highest expression of civility in the fantastical experience of a luxury hotel. Of course, it shows how civilization did not exist as a stable established "thing" in the first place. But it also shows what a beautiful dream it was, a whisper that the people of that era once believed in. As Mr. Mustafa (the elder Zero) explains at the end of the film:
It seems to me that we go to movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel fully alert to today's public cruelties, the threat of global catastrophe and social injustice. The dark fantasy, however, is no more honest because of its darkness. Wes Anderson's recent film depicts, not unlike the work of the best postmodern theorists, both the fragility of civil societies as well as the painful work that goes into breathing civility to life in our social and political conditions. It is a nostalgic lost world, but its core is not an abstraction as such. Rather, it beats within the flawed heart of Mr. Gustav H. and makes you wish there were more of them today.