The following is the first part of my article in the new Spring Issue of the online review magazine Shiny New Books. In the article, I introduce the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whom director Wes Anderson acknowledged as the source of inspiration for his Oscar winning production. To read the whole piece, CLICK HERE. I’m sure you’ll find the SNB site informative and a valuable resource of books and authors.
The Grand Budapest Hotel won four Oscars at the 87th Academy Awards this February. In the end of the film, leading the credits, is the acknowledgement of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) whose writings had inspired the production. During interviews, director Wes Anderson had joked that he ‘stole’ from the Austrian writer: ‘It’s basically plagiarism,” he said. Anderson is all modesty when making such a remark, for the film has his own signature style. Unlike Zweig’s more serious and darker hue, Anderson has created a colourful fantasy. Rather than an imitation, the film should be regarded as a worthy homage to an author who had been noted as one of the most translated German-language writers during the 1930’s.
Anderson came across Zweig by chance when he purchased his 1939 novel Beware of Pity in a Paris bookstore. After two pages, he knew he had discovered a new favorite author. Twenty pages later, he wanted to adapt it into film. Then he read some more Zweig and liked them all. So he made a peculiar endeavour, he transposed the author’s oeuvre, his life and spirit into his own re-imagining, creating a film that eventually would catapult him to the zenith of acclamation.
The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated for nine Oscars at the 2015 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Directing, and Best Original Screenplay for Anderson himself. Albeit not having won these major categories, the film did capture four wins in Original Score, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling. The triumph is shared by the late Zweig, for he has now been introduced to many more readers, especially those of us in North America. New York Review Books has seen Zweig’s popularity rise after the movie, but it is UK’s Pushkin Press that holds the banner of a ‘Zweig revival’ by republishing many of his works in English translation.
Zweig was born 1881 in Vienna to a Jewish family who circulated freely in the upper crust of Austro-Hungarian society. He was versatile and prolific as a poet, translator, biographer, essayist, lyricist, short story writer and novelist. His literary achievement was prodigious. At nineteen, Zweig saw his first publication, a collection of poetry by the respectable publisher Schuster & Löffler. Upon this debut on the literary stage, Zweig was ecstatic to receive a gift from his idol, Rilke, who had read the youngster’s work and sent him a special edition of his own poetry with the inscription addressed to Zweig: “with thanks.” Later, still at the tender age of nineteen, Zweig saw his essays published in the feuilleton, literary supplement, of Vienna’s prestigious newspaper the Neue Freie Presse, sharing the pages with such formidable literary figures as Ibsen, Zola, Strindberg and Shaw.
Readers can find his excitement in recalling these unexpected early successes in his autobiography The World of Yesterday. It was not so much about fame but identity. The glorious world of yesterday included not only the fulfilled dream of a young man, but that of the Jewish people in finding a homeland, free and secure in Vienna. At long last, they could taste the reality of belonging. Jews in Vienna had become respectable, contributing members of society, particularly in the realms of the arts and culture.
As we can see from history, such a triumph would soon be obliterated. In August 1914, Zweig saw the world order and security that he so cherished and thrived on crumble as WWI broke out. If that was the beginning of the end, Nazism in the 1930’s rang in the death toll. Zweig had to escape to England, later the United States, finally landed in Brazil. Exiled and alienated, the Austrian writer was overwhelmed by despair as he saw his homeland and Europe devoured by Hitler. The German language he was born into and had so aptly used in his literary success he now had to apologize for. Such devastation and emptiness was too much to bear. In 1942, just a few days after He sent off his last book Chess Story to his American publisher, Zweig and his second wife committed suicide together in Petrópolis, Brazil.
Wes Anderson recreated Zweig’s pre-war world in his fictional Republic of Zubrowka, with The Grand Budapest Hotel itself as a metaphor of that secure microcosm, everything runs smoothly under the supervision of the concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), at least in the first half of the film. The boxy Academy Ratio we see on screen evokes the idea of looking into an old photo album in all its nostalgic charm. The exile life of a genocide survivor we can find in Zero the lobby boy (Tony Revolori young, F. Murray Abraham older).
Richard Brody in his New Yorker article “Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson, And a Longing for the Past” writes that Zweig himself had experienced the ‘practical difficulties’ and ‘psychological trauma’ of having lost his passport while on the run. The passport, Brody notes, “wasn’t even a commonplace document before the First World War.” Without it, one instantly was turned into an outlaw. Zero has M. Gustave to thank for standing up for him twice while travelling on the train without transit papers. The first time, officer Henckels (Edward Norton) recognizes M. Gustave, his parents’ friend, and remembers his kindness to him when he was a boy; human relations win over and Zero is spared. Unfortunately, luck runs out for M. Gustave in the second time, all because of the change in military control, a symbolic reference to the iron fist of the Nazi regime. No societal ties or achievements could save Zweig or the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.
The following are two titles to which Anderson had made specific reference – Zweig’s only novel Beware of Pity and his novella The Post-Office Girl. The third is Anderson’s own selections, an excellent sampler of Zweig’s works, The Society of the Crossed Keys.
To continue reading my short reviews of these books, CLICK HERE to Shiny New Books. Or, just click anyway to see what an array of book reviews, author interviews and their own articles, book news and tidbits await you.