The Grand Budapest Hotel and the Imagination

Lest we forget thanks to the Kick that Salman Khan and Sajid Nadiadwala have delivered today, there is another film in the theatres. It’s Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and even for someone who is not necessarily an Anderson fan, it’s a beauty. I started writing about The Grand Budapest Hotel and it was a joy to write about it. It’s a beautiful little film and to my mind, Anderson’s best so far, but more than that, the film is a celebration of something we don’t rejoice in often enough: the imagination’s ability to spin a world that feels real because it’s full of all the loveliness that is missing in reality, but can be found in abundance in the imaginary. Before I knew it, I’d written thousands of words. This is not wise since as writers, we’re hyper aware of how even a few hundred words demand more attention than what readers part with freely. So a more brief review is here, but here’s the unedited whole, for those so inclined.


In the course of The Grand Budapest Hotel, its hero Gustave H breaks out into poetry ten times. Each of those ten times, his florid, beautiful verse is interrupted by life. Everything from dinner to the sound of an alarm gets in the way of Gustave’s poetic flourish. The last time, it’s literally life that gets in the way. Gustave is hanging on to the edge of an icy precipice. There’s a killer intent upon ending his life. The ice is cracking. Certain death awaits Gustave. His response to the end that looms before him is to speak these lines:

If this do be me end: farewell!” cried the wounded piper-boy, whilst the muskets cracked and the yeomen roared, “Hurrah!” and the ramparts fell. “Methinks me breathes me last, me fears!” said he.”

It sounds like something written by Lord Alfred Tennyson or someone from the 19th century who read “The Lady of Shalott” too many times. A friend asked me if the lines were a quote and that resulted in me tying myself up in knots. “It’s not really a poem,” I said. “As in it is, in that it is poetry, but it’s not real. As in no one wrote it. I mean, obviously someone wrote it, but not –” I paused for breath and then got to the point: “It was written for the film. I think Wes Anderson, or Hugo Guinness, made it up.”

This is true not just of these lines of poetry, but practically everything in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Zubrowka is entirely fictitious. There is no champagne known as Pouilly-Jouvet; the Courtesan du Chocolat that Agatha makes so beautifully is not a real dessert; Johannes van Hoytl did not exist, and as far as anyone can tell, neither was there ever a secret society of concierges like The Society of Crossed Keys. Pick a detail from The Grand Budapest Hotel — from the screenplay or the film itself — and chances are that it will be a beautifully fabricated bit of fiction.

What’s particularly lovely is how Anderson emphasises this in the way he’s filmed The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson researched the period and area in which the film is set extensively, which shows in the exquisite production design. Every little detail is either authentically sourced or remarkably fabricated. Then it’s put in its place so that each and every frame of The Grand Budapest Hotel is precisely arranged like the doll’s house of a child with OCD. The symmetry of each shot is perfect, with the lines and geometry of everything from architecture to costume, character and prop perfectly aligned. It’s all too neat to be true, and yet every detail looks so authentic to this doll’s house world and so comfortably at home in its niche that the world starts feeling real.

Still, for all the care that has been lavished upon making the illusion seem real, Anderson doesn’t ever let us forget that this is all imaginary. So, for example, there are models and drawings that he slips in every now and then. The funicular is a good example. That the funicular was once a real mode of transport barely lingers in our memory. Anderson’s delicate, miniature funicular simultaneously reminds us of its existence and consigns it to romantic folklore. It’s not by chance that every time we see The Grand Budapest Hotel from the outside, what Anderson shows is a miniature model. If the charm of the hotel’s interiors and characters like Gustave has seduced you into believing the illusion to be true, Anderson subtly reminds his audience that this whole world is, in fact, made up of artifice and the imagination.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, courtesy Facebook.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, courtesy Facebook.

So why do all this? Why lavish all this attention and care into creating something that doesn’t hold up a mirror to contemporary reality, something that seems to be not just irrelevant to the present but also to the time period in which the story is set? After all, there’s a war marching into Zubrowka and all Anderson cares about is a bisexual concierge in a luxury hotel? Yes, and contrary to how it seems, the fact that The Grand Budapest Hotel retreats from the reality that surrounds it is what makes it so relevant to everyone who has ever daydreamed or lost themselves in a work of art.

Gustave H, head concierge at The Grand Budapest Hotel of Zubrowka, is not a mundane creature. His job is commonplace — a concierge is an unremarkable employee in a hotel, whose job is to assist guests who want to sample the cultural offerings of a place. Just how lowly he is in the social scheme of things is evident when Gustave is accused of murder. Although he is innocent, he can’t fight the system because the ones accusing him are powerful. There are no lawyers that come to his aid, there is no one to plead his case. He is without champions and at the mercy of the legal and justice system that is not in his favour.

Yet within the hotel, Gustave carries himself with majesty. His role is to serve, but the power dynamic is clearly in his favour. It isn’t the guest who makes The Grand Budapest an institution, but Gustave, with his adoration of all things sophisticated, tasteful and beautiful. It is his sensibility and his unflagging devotion to elegance that makes the hotel the exquisite little gem that it is. His attention to detail makes The Grand Budapest a retreat from the real world for everyone. For young Zero Moustafa, it’s a refuge from the violence of war that he’s left behind him in his homeland. For Madame D, it’s a place where she’s alive and safe, which is why she’s so unwilling to leave.

As it turns out, leaving The Grand Budapest Hotel is fraught with dangers for those who appreciate its pleasures. Soon after Madame D leaves the hotel, she’s killed. When Gustave and Zero leave the first time, we discover there are tanks and soldiers standing in the middle of barley fields. Zero and Gustave are both roughed up by soldiers and what saves them is the memory of the hotel. Henckels, the commander, remembers Gustave from holidays he spent at The Grand Budapest Hotel as a child, and that’s what saves the two travellers. Within the world that Gustave has created inside The Grand Budapest, everything is beautiful and works in clockwork order. Desires are catered to, needs are met, beauty is preserved. Outside, there’s murder, intimidation, war and gloom. Even nature can provide no relief, smothered as it is under a thick blanket of snow or ice. The one exception to this setup is Agatha and her Courtesans du Chocolat. As Gustave says, there’s a purity about her and it’s particularly precious because it survives the real world. Her terrible boss, the poverty in which she lives, the birth mark that mars her face, none of this interferes with the single-minded dedication with which she makes those beautiful desserts. Perhaps it’s because what Agatha creates is made despite the pressures of the real world that when Gustave has to break out of jail, nothing from the world of the hotel is of any help. It’s Agatha’s confectionery that proves to be invaluable. It looks like frippery, but without it, there would be no jailbreak.

There’s never any ambiguity about the fact that in concrete, mundane terms, The Grand Budapest is a doll’s house inside a crumbling old building. No one knows this as well as Gustave. After all, the reality of the hotel is the pretty façade the guests see, but the cramped rooms in which the staff stays and the bland meals they eat. When Gustave tries to bring a touch of elegance into that shabby space with his beloved poems, everyone opts to attack the food rather than pay attention to him. The reason Gustave is one of the heroes The Grand Budapest Hotel is that he, like Agatha, manages to hold on to what he loves even when he’s in his spartan quarters: bottles of L’air de Panache, his distinctive perfume, and his volumes of romantic poetry. They’re little bits of frippery that, like so much in The Grand Budapest Hotel, seem irrelevant but are important because loving them and appreciating their beauty is what makes Gustave and Zero special. That’s what makes them Anderson’s heroes. Just as Anderson tries to create and preserve imaginary worlds in his films simply because they’re beautiful, so do Gustave and Zero with the hotel.

Ralph Fiennes and Wes Anderson, during the shooting of The Grand Budapest Hotel, courtesy Facebook.
Ralph Fiennes and Wes Anderson, during the shooting of The Grand Budapest Hotel, courtesy Facebook.

Remembering Gustave, Zero says at one point in The Grand Budapest Hotel,

“To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it — but I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace!” 

He could be talking about Anderson, whose every film is steeped in a nostalgia for a past that is part inherited or learned memory and part imagination. Anderson’s films almost always are filled with fictitious books, unreal histories and imaginary maps and trails. While his films are always beautiful, there are times when the quirkiness becomes overwhelming. The Darjeeling Limited, for instance, seemed more self-indulgent than imaginative. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the episodes that made the film seemed too haphazard. When all the bric-a-brac fall into place though, as it did in The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom for instance, Anderson’s films are magnificent for how completely they’re imagined. Watching them is like stepping into a dream — you know it isn’t real, but it feels emphatically true for its running time and once it’s over, you wish you could return to that world which, despite its sadnesses, is so utterly gorgeous. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel might be the closest to being Anderson’s personal manifesto. It’s a story about a concierge who was falsely accused of murder but who had the last laugh over his accusers. It’s also a story about an immigrant who came to a foreign land, started at the bottom of the social pile as a bell boy and ended up to be not just one of the richest men, but also the one person who preserved his new homeland’s cultural legacy. But most of all, it’s a story about the love of beautiful things and an ode to the imagination that can cocoon you from reality.

On the surface, Gustave and Zero’s adventures are a silly little caper set against exquisite backdrops, but what they celebrate is the ability to be completely out of touch with reality. Reality is filled with tanks, murderous henchmen, greedy sons and thoughtless nitty-gritty. There are barely any colours and all the details that could make the world beautiful have been hidden. If you’re looking for beauty, then you have to retreat from this reality, into worlds where the imagination flourishes; worlds like The Grand Budapest. The hotel seems like a repository of elitist frippery and there’s no doubt that there is an elitism at play here, but it’s not one guided by money. It’s an elitism of taste. Anderson doesn’t glorify the aristocracy or the moneyed in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Look at Dmitri and Madame D’s daughters, and you find little sympathy for those characters. They don’t even get a splash of colour, dressed as they are in flat, dull black.

The ones who do find favour with Anderson are the concierges, who are low on the social pecking order but who are, in a way, the guardians of taste and culture. It isn’t the poshness of the opera or the cost of the hand-crafted luggage that makes these things valuable; it’s the artistry. It’s the ability to appreciate the beauty of a painting, the lyricism of words, the delicacy of flavours in a dessert — this is the keen sensitivity to sophisitication that distinguishes the concierges of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The delightful Society of the Crossed Keys isn’t a union of hotel employees, but a collective of people who love the beautiful details that seem like unnecessary luxuries. In times of crises, these luxuries become examples of the best thing about the human mind: its ability to create out of absolutely nothing. In a world without colour, where war is inevitable and people are becoming increasingly like automatons, perhaps losing touch with reality is the best way to deal with — and maybe even change — everything that’s wrong with what actually exists around you.

From The Grand Budapest Hotel (Zero and Author), courtesy Facebook
From The Grand Budapest Hotel (Zero and Author), courtesy Facebook


The more I think about The Grand Budapest Hotel — I’ve seen it four times and I’m yet to be bored by it — Anderson’s latest work strikes me as a fabulously defiant film. Perhaps it’s because the reality that confronts and surrounds me on a daily basis is so intensely disheartening and filled with ugliness, but the film served as a beautiful reminder that there’s no shame in retreating from reality if it threatens what you hold dear. The imagination isn’t important to everyone and it need not be, but Gustave, Zero and Agatha’s determination to not let go of the what they love (whether it’s something as important as one another or as incidental as the Jouilly-Pouvet), it’s everything. Gustave and eventually Zero’s stubbornness to ignore the pragmatic starts off as endearing but ridiculous. By the end of the film, Gustave has been shot and Zero has given up everything just so that he can protect The Grand Budapest from the reality outside for a few more years. Their love for the good things in life seems more like a rebellion.

Ultimately, all we know about Gustave is his good taste, his panache if you will. Despite all the words that he fills The Grand Budapest Hotel with, there’s very little we know of him beyond his aesthetic. Of Zero, we know more and slowly you realise that, in spite of his silences, Zero is much more than a foil to Gustave. It is Zero who prods Gustave into stealing the painting — not only does he silently give Gustave the idea of stealing it, he brings the stool and sets up the crime. He’s also the one who replaces Boy With Apple with an image of two women masturbating — and that sets off the chain of events that change Gustave’s life.

Gustave might be the star of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but the story in the film is Zero’s. There’s a reason for this. Zero, as an immigrant who comes to Zubrowka and The Grand Budapest because he’s survived terrible violence, is keenly aware of the real world. Yet, in spite of all that he reality that he’s survived or perhaps because of it, Zero chooses to immerse himself in the frivolous beauty of The Grand Budapest. He follows in Gustave’s footsteps and devotes himself to preserving a vanishing, beautiful world to the best of his ability; he brings back to life Gustave and the hotel’s glory days by telling their story.

We’re constantly delivering or receiving reality cheques; we’re told to not retreat in face of ugliness, to face facts. Between the coverage offered by 24-hour news channels and social media, there isn’t an atrocity or tragedy that escapes us. Open the newspaper, there’s a horrific crime. Open the email, there’s a hopeless but desperate petition. Open the comments thread, and there are abuses. You’re expected to know what’s happening. It’s irresponsible, shameful if you don’t.

The Grand Budapest Hotel reminded me that stepping back and closing off isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because if in the process of facing reality, you forget what is beautiful, then what’s the point of being in touch? Perhaps we bounced back better from fights and disappointments as kids because the imaginary was so crucial a part of our lives. Whether it was through books or doodles or just sitting and staring out of windows, we took time to retreat from the real world as children. Perhaps we were stronger for it.

I look around at the ugliness that’s around us and it seems unlikely that something beautiful can be created out of it. Then I think of Gustave, out of touch with the world and entirely in tune with the beautiful, and suddenly, daydreaming seems like a wonderful idea. There is a place for protests and there is a need for outrage, but there’s no point to all of this if it leaves you without beauty. So forget the world around you and pick up that book, read that poem, listen to that music, savour that dessert, lose yourself in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

And then let’s see what beauty we can conjure for ourselves. Because while it is a relief to be able to turn one’s back upon the rubbish that is reality, it is also the only way to bring a little beauty into an increasingly ugly world. There are now YouTube videos of people making Courtesans du Chocolat at home. In homes around the world, Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeous soundtrack for the film drowns the noise of traffic or squabbling neighbours. And maybe, just maybe, a few more people are pledging their loyalty to the priorities that guide the Society of Crossed Keys.

The day after I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel, I began writing a story that had no moral, no lesson and no point to make. It’s just fiction, filled with unreal things. And who knows? It might just end up being beautiful by the time I’m done. However it turns out, I’m daydreaming. And that in itself is more beautiful than the reality within or outside the virtual or real window.


One thought on “The Grand Budapest Hotel and the Imagination”

  1. Great post! I was wondering when it would open in India 😛 And rightly said, the film is beautiful.
    Wes Andersen is brilliant! I’ve always been partial to The Royal Tenenbaums & Moonrise Kingdom as his best work.

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