Wes Anderson’s Elegy to Stefan Zweig

By Max NelsonMarch 14, 2014

Wes Anderson’s Elegy to Stefan Zweig

IN 2006, WES ANDERSON shot a two-minute TV spot for American Express. In the commercial, which takes place on a film set, Anderson plays a coy variation on his boyish, control-freaky public persona. He strolls purposefully between takes along a virtual conveyer belt of actors practicing lines (“It sounds fake”), personal assistants (“Where’s my lunch?”), makeup artists (“Is that the geisha? Looks good”), and weapons handlers (“Can you do a .357 with a bayonet?”), tossing out kernels of filmmaking wisdom to the camera between each exchange. The movie he’s making is a madcap espionage thriller set in the shadow of a massive, worn-down building, full of unexpected plot twists and marked by a surprisingly cavalier attitude towards on-screen death. (“Why would I put on a hat,” Jason Schwartzman asks Wes in their rapid-fire consultation, “if my best friend just got blown up right in front of me?”)

Eight years later, Anderson has made that movie. The Grand Budapest Hotel, his eighth feature, is a breathless, gilded, bloody, extravagantly ornamented and, in the end, deeply despondent adventure film set in a crumbling, fictional European country at the outbreak of an unnamed war. It ends with a dedication to the early-20th century Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, and begins with a setup pulled from Zweig’s story The Fowler Snared. During an off-season stay at a nearly deserted hotel, a young man (Jude Law) befriends an elderly loner (F. Murray Abraham) and hears a story from the older man’s past, which then becomes the main narrative. (There are, in fact, two frame narratives here. In the opening minutes of the film, the author who listened to Zero’s story, now an old man himself, prepares to tell the tale second-hand.)

Zubrowka, the film’s imagined setting, is clearly styled as a fairy-tale version of prewar Eastern Europe, complete with mountainous rural landscapes, lavish, over-adorned palaces, charming bakeries and cobbled side streets. Anderson shot much of the film in Görlitz, a small town on the German-Polish border a half-hour’s drive from the Czech Republic. For the interiors of the palatial resort hotel where much of the film takes place, he used a century-old department store. In the Grand Budapest, Anderson has built a monument to Europe’s old-world excesses that doubles as a mausoleum — an “enchanting old ruin,” as Zero (Abraham) calls it. And in Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the charismatic hero of Zero’s story-within-a-story, he’s created a personification of all the continent’s 19th century standards, hopes, virtues and flaws.

Like the idealistic waiter protagonist of Zweig’s early story The Star Above the Forest, Gustave is a hotel employee — a concierge — of “cool, slightly debonair stylishness” and “impeccable good taste.” From there, the two characters diverge sharply. Anderson’s hero is a charming, sexually polymorphous social animal who leaves perfume trails behind him wherever he goes and has a habit of bedding the hotel’s wealthy, elderly female guests. He’s an inveterate performer, and, when he’s in his element, a kind of pantomime movie director. (In a scene modeled after Anderson’s American Express ad, he marches through the hotel’s lobby answering questions from a stream of lower-ranking employees.) But he is also, with his fondness for Romantic poetry, his flowery turns of phrase, and his air of studied refinement, a standard-bearer for the values and manners of prewar Europe’s urban upper crust. After giving teenage Zero a rapid-fire list of disparaging remarks about the young man’s girlfriend, he confesses why he nonetheless finds her utterly charming: “It’s her purity.”

Female purity, family bloodlines, and personal honor are not new subjects for Anderson, whose heroes have always had a more or less pronounced aristocratic streak. The family at the center of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), each burdened with their own private losses and regrets, wear their status as old New York royalty like a coat that somehow seems simultaneously too large and too small. Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic (2004) is driven into dangerous waters by his need to redeem his reputation after a series of recent disgraces, while the three brothers of The Darjeeling Limited (2007) make a similar journey into what strikes their urban eyes as a strange and threatening new world to reconcile with their estranged mother. Rushmore, Anderson’s 1998 breakthrough, is the story of two men dueling over a woman’s honor. Bottle Rocket, his 1996 debut, contains one of the purest and most generous romantic relationships in all his films, but even this comes with a strong current of class consciousness: a hangdog petty criminal courts and wins the heart of the young maid at his motel hideout. (Or, as Zweig might have told it: at an off-season resort hotel, a young servant falls for a sensitive lower-tier nobleman with a shadowy past.) The non-human heroes of Fantastic Mr. Fox (2010) are, of all Anderson’s characters, likely the most honest about their instincts and drives — but their society is, in a way, just as rigorously layered and sub-divided as that of the Tenenbaums. It’s the preteen couple in Moonrise Kingdom (2012) who manage to rise furthest above the status-based hang-ups of Anderson’s previous heroes, a freedom the kids gain only by losing, or rejecting, their families.

Anderson’s attitude towards these characters is hard to place. Like Orson Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons, he wavers between critiquing their upper-class neuroses and admiring their gusto, their pride, and their capacity for nostalgia. But where the dignity Welles gave his aristocrats was essentially tragic, Anderson’s nearly always veers towards the comic. For his heroes to become noble, they first have to be made ridiculous; their nobility, in fact, consists precisely in their ability to recognize the ridiculousness of their own pretensions and insecurities. The serious side of life, for Anderson, has little to do with anxieties over class and blood, and much more to do with the passage of time and the difficulty of coexisting peacefully with others.

In the way he marks time, too, Anderson can be defined against Welles — or Max Ophuls, whose Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) is still the gold standard for cinematic Zweig adaptations. Whereas those directors carried their characters from moment to moment in long, flowing, dance-like tracking shots, Anderson’s style — his static, portrait-like framing of people and objects, or the way he packs the background and periphery of each frame with carefully-arranged details, garnishes and decorations — is designed to fix the moment in place, to perfect it, commemorate it, and embalm it. In this, he has always resembled Zweig, a writer with a deep elegiac streak and a love for artful, precise, carefully adorned sentences. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, he has made this debt explicit. That said, Anderson hasn’t so much adapted Zweig’s writings as channeled their spirit, reconstructed their atmospheres and taken up their major obsessions.

Between his birth into an upper-class Viennese Jewish family in 1881 and his death by his own hand in 1942, Zweig produced a vast number of writings: poems, plays, feuilletons for the Neue Freie Presse (a widely-read paper for which he started writing at 19), biographies, histories, translations, countless letters, a memoir, two novels (one unfinished), and the stories and novellas that have formed the basis for his recent revival among English-language readers like Anderson. He often spoke of his own biography as if it were divided into “three lives”: his coming of age in glittering prewar Vienna, including four years at the university (for the first three, he never attended class) and subsequent trips to India, Africa, America and much of Europe; his position between World War I and World War II as a bona-fide literary celebrity, during which time he was living with his first wife in Salzburg; and, finally, his years of exile in Britain and the Americas leading up to and following Austria's 1939 absorption into the Third Reich. 

As a fiction writer, his lifelong obsessions included first love, which he wrote about with extraordinary firsthand intensity, the loss of innocence — along with the self-deceptions necessary to preserve it — and the devastating cultural, national and personal toll of the two World Wars. In his autobiographical writings, he comes off as both unresolvable and unresolved: a passionate esthete who admits having suffered as a young man from a destructive, all-consuming "artistic monomania," a prime mover in numerous and wealthy literary circles who maintained an idealistic faith in friendly relations between the classes, a elegist who mourned the loss of Europe's old social order even as he recognized its blind spots, pretensions, moral failings and limitations, and a progressive critic of Victorian morality whose writings have a sexual frankness somewhat out of key with their deep-set romantic idealism.

That last incongruity speaks to a deeper tension that runs through much of Zweig’s fiction. His tendency to assign love an all-justifying, transformative power often threatens to infringe on his ability to capture the mood of a Europe that didn’t have the luxury for such romantic visions. (Although it may have had a need for them: Zweig’s collections sold like wildfire.) Some of his best fiction is, for all its psychological insight, staunchly adolescent in its outlook on life and love. In stories and novellas like Journey into the PastA Story Told in TwilightThe Star Above the Forest and Letter from an Unknown Woman, Zweig depicts first loves that extend over entire — sometimes brief — lifetimes, their color unfaded and their passion uncooled. The heroes and heroines of these stories, rather than grow into love, let it crash over them in the space of an instant; from then on, they exist in a state of permanent romantic suspension. On first coming face-to-face with the subject of her lifelong desire, the heroine of Letter from an Unknown Woman tells us, “I flung myself into my fate as if into an abyss”; at the end of A Story Told in Twilight, the young protagonist “becomes one of those men who cannot find a way of relating to women, because in one second of his life the sensation of both loving and being loved had united in him entirely.” Even the impassive gentleman narrator of Fantastic Night, suddenly struck after a chance encounter with a burning need to unite with the rest of humanity, or the manipulative elderly schemer at the center of The Fowler Snared end up relating to the rest of the world like young men: vaguely, abstractly and vulnerably.

It’s striking how this current of young male romanticism in Zweig relates to several of his other great themes: the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of World War I, the mass crimes committed against Austrian Jewry in the decades that followed, and the resulting loss, for upper-class Viennese, of a centuries-old social order. In Journey to the Past, a haunting novella discovered and published after Zweig’s death, a young doctor moves into his ailing employer’s home — a “grand house … rather in the old Franconian style” — and falls madly, reciprocally in love with the man’s much younger wife. The outbreak of World War I forces the pair into nine years of forced separation. In its final pages, the novella shifts its focus from the estranged lovers, walking together for the last time, to the shadows they cast on the ground ahead, “two bodies in one form, parting again only to embrace once more, while they themselves walked on, tired and apart from one another.” Then the shadows, too, are transformed: “Had not those specters searching for their past been muted questions, asked of a time that was no longer real?” Here, as often happens in Zweig’s fiction, romantic loss has become intimately associated with the loss of a certain set of values, customs, manners, places and political entities, all part of the intricate, colorful tapestry of prewar Viennese life.

Often, what brings about this association is the tendency Zweig’s heroes have to conflate their own romantic desire with their desire for those places, manners and forms. “Even before you came into my life,” the heroine of Letter from an Unknown Woman confesses to the famous, Lothario-like writer she’s always loved, “there was an aura around you redolent of riches.” It’s a similar impulse that leads the hero of The Star Above the Forest, a romantically inclined hotel waiter, to fall for a wealthy Polish Baroness with a “faithful, doglike devotion” — and to hurl himself in front of her departing train when she returns to Warsaw. (“Subservience seemed to him quite natural,” we’re told, “and he felt the humiliating intimacy of menial labor as good fortune, because it enabled him to step so often into the magic circle that surrounded her.”) There is something troubling about the way these characters associate old Vienna’s sharp class divisions with a lost capacity for romance, imagination and grace. What accounts for their nostalgia, without fully excusing it, is that, by the middle of the 20th century, Europe’s capacity for romance, imagination and grace seemed well and truly lost.

Anderson, as might be expected, draws especially heavily for The Grand Budapest Hotel on the wistful, nostalgic, high-mannerist side of Zweig’s work. This tendency, though, accounts for only half of the finished movie. Like The Life Aquatic and Moonrise KingdomThe Grand Budapest Hotel is as much a dizzy adventure story as it is a stately meditation on impermanence, mortality and loss; indeed, one of the main challenges in reading the film is to work out how, or if, these two narratives cohere. The adventure plot, which moves at a pace somewhere between that of a cliffhanger-packed silent serial and a Looney Tunes cartoon, centers on the teenage Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee from a fictionalized, war-torn Middle Eastern country. For the movie’s first half-hour, he gives a detailed, colorful account of working as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest under Monsieur Gustave. Eventually the suspicious death of one of Gustave’s elderly female intimates (played by a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton and winkingly named after Ophuls’ tragic heroine Madame D), followed by the theft (by Gustave) of her priceless Dutch painting “Boy With Apple,” sets in motion a string of increasingly daft set-pieces — including, but not limited to, an improbably convoluted prison break (with a brief turn by Harvey Keitel as a shirtless, tattooed inmate), a top-secret cable car journey to the inner chambers of a mountaintop monastery, a ski-versus-sled chase down the same mountain, the discovery of a severed head in a laundry basket, a climactic shootout at the Grand Budapest involving dozens of fascist officials, and a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between a neat-freak, Gestapo-esque assassin (Willem Dafoe) and an innocent estate lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) through a cavernous museum at closing time.

The second narrative tracks Zero’s increasingly fraternal bond with Gustave, his love for the angelic bakery-girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and his relationship with the Grand Budapest itself. In a bitter epilogue, the aging Zero reveals that the first two of these relationships were cut prematurely short by war and disease, respectively, leaving him to fall back on his one remaining point of contact with the past: the decaying, abandoned hotel. He ends the film by confessing his enduring love for Agatha, whose one piece of jewelry he still wears: “We were happy here briefly.” These bookend scenes radically alter the tone of the film; it’s as if Moonrise Kingdom had begun and ended with its two pre-adolescent lovers recalling the movie’s events sixty years after the fact, with nearly a lifetime’s worth of love and loss between them and their childhood selves. But they also bring Anderson into closer contact with Zweig, a lover of frame narratives who relished the way consigning a story to the past could both dampen its blows and bring its tragic, ironic implications into sharper focus.

Like much of Zweig’s fiction, The Grand Budapest Hotel ends on an elegiac note. But what exactly is it elegizing? Agatha is too indistinct and vaguely defined a character for the movie to work as a tribute to lost love; her closest, warmest scenes with Zero pale in comparison to, say, Sam and Susie’s beachside dance in Moonrise Kingdom, Mr. Fox’s mid-film confrontation with his wife, or Margot and Richie’s devastating brief encounter late in Tenenbaums. You could argue that Zero, in Zweigian fashion, is conflating Agatha with the whole of prewar European life: its varied perfumes, its elaborately decorated baked goods, and its general sense of romance and adventure. But unlike prewar Vienna, prewar Zubrowka never existed anywhere other than in Anderson’s imagination. It’s difficult to imagine Zweig setting, for instance, Letter from an Unknown Woman or Journey into the Past in a fantasy country; like many of the author’s stories, they speak directly to his acute awareness of having caught the tail end of a particularly vivid chapter in his own national history. (“I pity those,” he wrote, “who were not young during the last years of confidence in Europe,” for “whoever experienced that epoch… knows that all since has been retrogression and gloom.”) If The Grand Budapest Hotel is an elegy for the codes and manners of fin-de-siècle Europe, then Anderson is trapped in a potentially disingenuous position: that of eulogizing a world he only ever could have accessed through the nostalgia-drenched writings of its earlier elegists, and which he can only now evoke on his own, imagined terms.  

Anderson’s new movie, then, is a problem film in the same way that the latest efforts by Claire Denis (Bastards) and Hayao Miyazaki (The Wind Rises) were problem films: they apply their makers’ distinctive techniques, styles and rhythms either to a genre (in the case of the Denis) or a historical moment (in the case of the Miyazaki) with which they seem ill-equipped to deal. The Grand Budapest Hotel strays closer to the latter problem. Anderson’s approach to filmmaking, so well-suited to handling personal loss, private resentments, tension within closed groups and moments of comic realization, is uneasily matched to the kind of loss felt by nations or peoples — the loss of eras and cultures and, in the case of World War II–era Eastern Europe, millions of lives — particularly when the losses in question came long before his time.

What redeems the film, to my mind, is the productive tension it sets up between its melancholic picture of Europe in decay and the manic, whiz-bang adventure story that makes up its central narrative. There are really two movies here: a reflective memory play centered on real, momentous historical events, and an elaborate fantasy in which grisly deaths are treated with tossed-off, macabre humor and everything moves at whip-cracking speed. The clash between these two interlocked movies is precisely the clash Anderson’s characters are dealing with: between their expectation for, in Zweig’s words, “an ordered world with definite classes and calm transitions,” and their need to survive in a “tense, dramatic life filled with the unexpected.” Anderson, so often parodied, dismissed and critiqued for his ordered worlds and definite classes, has always played around at collapsing with one hand the same meticulous dollhouse structures he’s built up with the other. Films like Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom were elegies for lost worlds that contained the same violent forces responsible for killing off those worlds. This is especially true of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which puts us in a position not unlike that of Zweig’s parents and elders:

How little [our ancestors] knew, as they muddled through in security and comfort and possessions, that life can also be tension and profusion, a continuous state of being surprised and being lifted up from all sides; little did they think in their touching liberalism and optimism that each succeeding day that dawns outside our window can smash our life.

Zweig never had to build engines for disruption into his elegies, although he sometimes did anyway; for his generation, life’s “tension and profusion” was too pervasive to bear much fictional reminding. Anderson lives on comparatively firmer cultural, political and economic ground, which is perhaps why his movies often take great pains — in their manic energies, their hairpin turns, and their jolting willingness to kill of innocent, likeable characters — to remind us of the forces capable of smashing our lives, our social reputations and our loves. His comedy, like that of the Marx Brothers, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, always proceeds from the inevitability of disruption and loss. The most remarkable thing about Anderson, then, is precisely what he’s most often accused of: his capacity to nevertheless keep building and re-building worlds so fine-tuned and well- ordered. What the hotel’s new concierge says of the elderly Zero late in The Grand Budapest Hotel could go just as well for Anderson himself: "To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with marvelous grace."


Max Nelson is a New York-based film critic who regularly contributes to Reverse Shot, Cinema Scope and Film Comment, where he writes a bimonthly column on new and upcoming restoration work.

LARB Contributor

Max Nelson is a New York–based film critic who regularly contributes to Reverse ShotCinema Scope, and Film Comment, where he writes a bimonthly column on new and upcoming restoration work.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!