From Z to A: How Zweig Inspired Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel

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.

the-grand-budapest-hotel movie poster

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.

The World of Yesterday ZweigReaders 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).

Passport CheckRichard 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.


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’