The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

“But it doesn’t mean anything.”
“So we put in words. One word for every note, like this…”

— ‘Do-Re-Mi’ from The Sound of Music

Does music need words to make it meaningful? Do we have to find a message in a work of art before we can appreciate it?

the-grand-budapest-hotel movie poster

Here we are with a cinematic piece that can’t be ‘explained’. What genre? What theme? What purpose? I’m not going to bother. As with my experience of watching previous Wes Anderson movies, somehow, I feel I need to let my rational side relax and just enjoy the ride. Rushmore probably has more of a traditional storytelling mode and thematic content. But with The Royal Tenenbaums, I have to adjust the quirky frequency to high, it’s a totally different kind of viewing experience. Fantastic Mr. Fox, I was mesmerized by the stop-motion animation and humour, great voices add to the lively adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story. Moonrise Kingdom, I wasn’t fully gratified but by then, I was used to the Wes Anderson style of ‘magical realism’.

That ‘magical realism’ strikes again in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Not my favourite colour palette, red and pink, by I was totally captivated as soon as the film began. I was being led into a fairytale world of real life people. From the cinematic framing, it aptly demonstrates the idea of symmetry. In many frames, the subject is right in the centre, almost perfect symmetry on both sides of the screen. But does it mean anything? One might ask. If we have to be rational about it, shall we just say, for the effects of a neat and tidy piece of the old world. Framing nostalgia before the world becomes too distorted, too inhumane. This is, after all, 1930’s Europe. And we can see the parallels in signs and symbols especially towards the end of the movie when uniformed men take over the Hotel.

Grand Budapest Signs & Symbols

Wes Anderson credits Stefan Zweig in creating The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Austrian writer’s name is shown at the very beginning of the end credits. In numerous interviews, Anderson pays tribute to Zweig’s whole collection of works, a writer who is noted as once ‘the world’s most translated author’. Zweig is a relatively new discovery for Anderson but so deeply has the writer inspired the filmmaker that ‘it’s basically plagiarism’, Anderson joked at the news conference when the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

As someone who is much intrigued by the creative process of adapting books into films, I did read some Zweig before watching Budapest. I must be reading the wrong works though, I’d thought. From the novella Chess Story, to a few of the stories I read in the new collection recently translated into English, all tell very gloomy tales. The writings almost exude a sense of despair, as the characters are mostly running away from persecutions and ethnic cleansing, or memories thereof, even driven to madness as the chess champion Czentovic in Chess Story, albeit some descriptions embed a subtle trace of humour.

Maybe along the notion of ‘Wabi-sabi“, beauty and sadness, what Zweig has done subtly and now Anderson explicitly is to extract and fuse “humor and sadness”. Here in Budapest, writer/director Anderson has freely utilized the element of fantasy and fun to paint the passing of an old world, a realism too sad for millions in 1930’s Europe, Zweig being one of the subsequent victims. To escape the incendiaries of Nazism, Zweig and his second wife moved to England, then to the U.S., and finally to Brazil in 1940 where he ultimately committed suicide together with his wife in 1942, leaving a note of utter despair as he saw Nazism dominating Europe and his former homeland Austria.

In this fictitious Republic of Zubrowka, where The Grand Budapest Hotel is situated, Anderson offers us a great escape despite setting his story within the brewing tension of 1930’s Europe. The story begins with a closer to present day author (Tom Wilkinson) reminiscing upon an extraordinary experience which has inspired his book The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Concierge Desk and Main Staircase

Years ago when he was still a young writer (Jude Law), in finding cures for writer’s block, he had retreated to a mountain hotel The Grand Budapest and in there met its owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Known as Zero when he  himself was just a lobby boy in an age long passed, the owner told the writer his story of how he came to inherit this grand piece of property, albeit in a run-down shape now. Someone volunteering an extraordinary life story to an author in an exotic locale, the beginning of Budapest reminds me of Life of Pi, another great tale of magical realism.

But the movie belongs to Ralph Fiennes as the hotel Concierge and go-to person for all sorts of favours, M. Gustave. The death of long time patroness of the Hotel Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) has dragged M. Gustave and his protégé, the new lobby boy Zero, down a rabbit hole of misadventures and fortunes. Fiennes has proven that he is a versatile actor that can be as evil as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, or as madly romantic as Count Almasy in The English Patient, or as charming and fun here in Budapest. His comic timing is first-rate, his expressions, spot-on. My long-range forecast, an Oscar nom awaits him next year for his role in Budapest.

Gustave & Zero

The line-up of talents is long, not just in acting, where we find the usuals of Wes Anderson movies like Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum. Saoirse Ronan (breakout role as young Briony in Atonement) as Agatha the pastry maker is adroit and whimsical. She’s well matched to the young lobby boy Zero, aptly played by Tony Revolori.

The movie is also marked by the delightful compositions of Alexandre Desplat, whose musical scores adorn many notable movies in recent years. A collaborator with Anderson since Rushmore but here, Desplat’s scores captivated me early on with the lively East European themes and in particular, the Russian folk melodies. Some instruments that we seldom hear in other films are distinctly alluring, such as balalaikas, zithers, dulcimers, and organ, with full orchestral rendering. Another long-range forecast, Oscar for original score.

And then there’s the make-up of Tilda Swinton, the art work and production design of the whole Budapest experience (even the parody painting “Boy with an Apple” is an original art work by English painter Michael Taylor from a real life model), the flowing editing, the original screenplay and directing, the cinematography, Budapest Hotel is going to be one grand entry in the next Academy Awards.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Read a related post: How Zweig Inspired Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: Oscars for Best Costume Design, Make-up, Production Design, Original Score.

Feb. 14, 2015: Wins Best Original Screenplay from WGA.

Feb. 8, 2015: 5 BAFTA wins, Original Screenplay, Original Music, Production Design, Make-up and Hair, Costume Design.

Jan. 15, 2015: 9 Oscar noms, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up and Hair-Styling, Costume Design, Original Score.

Jan. 11, 2015: Golden Globe win for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical

Dec. 11: 4 Golden Globe noms for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, Wes Anderson for Best Director and Best Screenplay, Ralph Fiennes for Best Actor – Comedy or Musical

Dec. 10: SAG nom for Best Cast in a Motion Picture

Dec. 7: The Grand Budapest Hotel wins Best Screenplay and Best Production Design at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: The Grand Budapest Hotel just wins Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle

Related Links:

From BBC CULTURE: The Writer Behind Budapest Hotel

From NPR: The Rise and Fall of Stefan Zweig

The Music Behind the Screen

The Untold Story Behind ‘Boy With Apple’

Published by


If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

27 thoughts on “The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape”

  1. Well, I’ll come back and read this later … the film is coming soon and we have been most uncertain from the trailers. I haven’t – this is embarrassing – seen any Wes Anderson films I think. My son has. Anyhow, it just so happens that my husband is reading Zweig’s Chess Story (in German) right now – but he’s the one most resistant to seeing the movie. I’d like to see it … though I know I’m going to be mystified, bemused, etc by it. We are flying North America side soon – maybe it will be on the plane BUT would it be a good plane movie?


    1. WG,

      My opinion is… no movie is a good plane movie. I’m sure you know what I mean. However, the reverse is true that, if one loves a movie having watched it on the plane, then it must be a good one. Even in such noisy environment and small screen and bad effects etc. one still enjoys it, then it must be very good. 😉

      I had to return the collection of short stories by Stefan Zweig to the library after reading only a few stories. But I will take it out again. If your husband enjoy Chess Story, that may be a good volume to get. I’d like to go into his other novels too, esp. the ones that directly inspired this movie. It’s wonderful that your husband can experience Zweig’s writing in its original language!

      This is my favourite Wes Anderson movie. Hope you’ll have the chance to check out his other ones.


      1. I agree re plane movies … I often choose documentaries and foreign films that I’m unlikely to see any other way.

        I shall use you recommendation to encourage my husband to see the Hotel!


  2. It’s a crime Fiennes has not won an Oscar yet, and it would be a crime if the Academy forgets to nominate him for this. His was a comic tour de force in Anderson’s farce that was mostly sweet with nice hints of darkness. I thought the cinematography in this was best we have ever seen in an Anderson film.


    1. David,

      Long time indeed. While I think Fiennes will likely be nom., the chance of him winning would be the real challenge since… exactly, this is a comedy. I agree with you about the cinematography, yes, the best in all Anderson’s films, so’s the artistic and very meticulous set design, make-up and costumes.


  3. My friend, Milton, has urged me to see this one. Wes Anderson’s films have grown on me through the years, so I will try to catch it before it leaves the theater, Arti.

    I loathe watching streamed films on the small screen.


    1. LA,

      Definitely on the big screen. Must-see for you if you’ve been following Anderson’s films all these years. I saw it twice in one week. 😉


  4. Thank you, such a good and thorough review!

    I must admit, I’m a 100% Wes A fan, and I did not get disappointed.
    The scenery, the colors, the camera stills, the absurd fairytale – Tony Revolori, Ronan, Tilda Swinton! A wonderful movie!

    The film also gave me the answer to why I didn’t like “Walter Mitty”:
    in a film things have to happen for a reason, the reason might be absurd, but it must seem believable within the frame of the film, it must spring from an inner logic. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel” it does, in “Walter Mitty” it didn’t.


    1. Sigrun,

      Thanks, Sigrun. Glad you’d enjoyed it… and good to find a Wes A. fan. Interesting comparison between Budapest and Walter Mitty. Hope WM doesn’t ruin the reputation of Ben Stiller, who, come to think of it, could be one good candidate for a Wes A. movie. 😉


  5. I’m so glad you liked this, for I am looking forward to seeing this one — which is actually here now! And all the Oscar mention? I hope they remember it in January or so when the awards are announced. I’m really excited about seeing Fiennes in a broader comic role — something new to add to his already impressive list of genres. This does sound like my cup of tea — if for the cast alone!


    1. Jeanie,

      My long range forecast, albeit it’s a little too early. But judging the film as a whole and not comparing it to any other films, I definitely think it has a good chance for multiple nominations. Eager to know your thoughts after you’ve seen it. I admit, I’d to watch it twice to appreciate it more. Fiennes is the key in making this appealing as it is. What a contrast with The Invisible Woman, which I’d watched at TIFF last Sept. Fiennes directed and played the role of Charles Dickens there. I must say, this farcical feat of The Grand Budapest Hotel is much more enjoyable than the well-intentioned and serious Dickensian portrayal.


  6. Here’s something interesting. The name of the film, the actors, the plot – none of your review rang a bell until you got to Ralph Fiennes as the hotel Concierge, M. Gustave. and his protégé, the new lobby boy Zero,

    Suddenly I realized I saw a trailer for this film when I went to see August: Osage County. The snippet I saw didn’t attract me, but remembering it now, within the context of your review, it makes more sense and seems more appealing.

    And, my — I’m glad to know I’m not alone in my slight aversion to the pink/red palette!


    1. Linda,

      This is a totally different kind of viewing experience. Wes Anderson’s works may not appeal to everyone, and I find culture may be a factor too. Several actors mentioned here are veterans and wonderful talents. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival this year. Hope you’ll venture out and see it. Mind you, you don’t have to change your colour preference to like it. It worked for me, one who is totally not fond of red/pink. 😉


  7. Wow, is that ever a pink hotel! I’ve been wondering if this movie was actually good or if it was all hype. Sounds like it is good! I’ve only read Zweig’s Post Office Girl and I liked it very much. I have plans to read more of his work but you know how reading plans go!


    1. Stefanie,

      According to the Paris Review, Post-Office Girl is the novel that has the most in common with The Grand Budapest Hotel. I should have read that one to prepare myself instead of Chess Story. I’m sure you’ll be interested to read this review from Paris Review. Mind you, Wes Anderson is an acquired taste. 😉


  8. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a Wes Anderson movie either. I’m keen to see this one (I think). I’ve only heard of Zweig in the last week or so, now he seems to be everywhere! I’ll be able to see this in early May.


  9. I’m very interested in your review as this is one of those rare films I’m tempted to watch. Do you think I would like it? (i.e. is it free from graphic violence?) I have read Stefan Zweig, but oddly enough, only his biography of Marie Antoinette, which is a bit random. His life was extraordinary though, from celebrity to tragedy in a few easy steps. Thank you for a wonderful review, as ever, Arti!


    1. Litlove,

      No, there isn’t any graphic violence, just cartoon violence. But I think you’ll enjoy it. It speaks to how literature stimulates different people in very different ways. Like when I read Zweig, I only found gloomy pessimism. In Wes Anderson’s hands, these writing are turned into a comedy. Mind you, I haven’t read much of Zweig’s writing. I’d like to read more, esp. The Post Office Girl which he said in particular inspired this film. Also, WA’s humour is a sight to behold. I say, go for it, together with Mr. Litlove. 😉


  10. I Love this movie. I have seen it several times. I see The Zweig connection to a dying culture,that of The Austro-Hungarian Empire. I do sometimes thing of checking into The hotel in its zenith period. I have read a good bit of translated Zweig and in fact have visited The now resort City in Brazil where he and his wife committed suicide. It is now a get a way City for rich Residents of Rio de Jenioro. In Zweig’s time it must have Bern near isolated.zweig in his Final memoirs talked of The Beauty of The Brazilian people. My favourite Zweig story is Mendel The Bibliophile. Thsnks for this very elegant post.


    1. Thanks for leaving your comment on this post. You’re quite a Zweig fan I must say. Glad too that the movie is not forgotten. Have you seen the biopic “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” (2016)? It’s quite well done, tracing the last days of Zweig’s life in Brazil. And if you’re interested in how Zweig influenced Anderson, I’d written an article some time ago for Shiny New Books. Just retrieved it here from their archive.


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