Stefan Zweig Biography: Chapter Nine - The Grand Budapest Hotel
Released in 2014, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a comedy film, written and directed by Wes Anderson. His involvement with such films as, The Royal Tenenbaums, and the animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, helped launch Anderson into success and critical fame. Anderson regularly collaborates with such actors as Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, and he brought them aboard for this project as well. The movie, filled with some of Hollywood’s most legendary stars, also casts Ralph Fiennes in the leading role as M. Gustave. Although the film boasts some prominent actors, it was not expected to be a major box office success. Despite that prediction, Grand Budapest Hotel has gained a great deal of traction, and has already received critical acclaim in just a few short months after its release.
Anderson became involved with the writings of Stefan Zweig during one of his many trips to Paris. He stumbled upon a few of Zweig’s books in a local bookstore. Anderson was immediately enthralled. He was especially taken by the deep, psychological portrayals of Zweig’s characters, handled with a seemingly light and deft touch. The admiration Anderson felt for the Austrian writer completely inspired Anderson’s vision for the movie. Anderson does not hide this influence, and evokes Zweig’s ghost from the very beginning of the film.
Grand Budapest begins with a woman who approaches a monument in a cemetery. The monument is to a not-so-mysterious figure known as, the Author. She also carries a volume penned by this same Author. The audience quickly discovers that the book is a memoir, and the woman begins to read from it. Her reading transports the audience back to the youth of the Author, and the movie begins.
The film then focuses on the Author himself, and his own memories of the hotel. He meets the current owner of the hotel, Grand Budapest, and begins to explain to him why the hotel has fallen on bad times. Zweig himself never wrote a specific novel about a hotel, but his stories are often set in lavish buildings and guesthouses. This immediate reference to an Author evokes Zweig’s memory with crystal clarity. The reference to the memoir in the movie also points to Zweig’s own autobiography, completed just one day before his death.
Anderson especially enjoyed the way that Zweig evoked the ambiance of early 20th century grandiosity in his writing. Anderson worked hard to incorporate that same feel into his film. He visited the Library of Congress, and used colorized photos of early hotels to help him create the set for the movie. Anderson reportedly looked through thousands of pictures of early 20th century European hotels, before taking a tour of Eastern Europe. He compared the architectural photographs of his tour with the photographs he had researched. From both the photographs, and his own travels, he created an archetypal amalgamation. The hotel becomes the central setting for the film, and it became very important that it be as unforgettable as Zweig’s writing. The lavish, pink structure, with its lush scarlet interior, splashes across the screen in lurid Technicolor. Gustave, the movie’s central character, echoes Stefan Zweig as well. Ralph Fienne’s clothing, hair, and mustache all evoke the Austrian author.
The movie is set and filmed entirely in Germany. Anderson was fortunate enough to employ the talents of set designer, Adam Stockhausen. Stockhausen did extensive research to insure that the atmospheric flavor of early 20th century Austrian hotels permeates the film. The hotel of Grand Budapest is fictional, and rests in a fictional place, but Stockhausen visited various European sites for his inspiration. Fashioned from his travels, Stockhausen cobbled together a country called the Republic of Zubrowka.
Taking the name from a brand of Polish vodka, the fictional country of Zubrowka is the epitome of a beautiful, lush, European country. With a backdrop of rolling mountains and verdant forests, it would be easy to imagine a thriving economy, fueled by the bored and the wealthy. The set designers used pictures of Karlovy Vary, a spa city in the Czech Republic, to create the movie’s promotional poster. The design team also included a stylized picture of a graceful statue on a hill in the poster. The statue exists in real life.
The physical edifice of the hotel itself is a small model. It was built by the designers, filmed, and then touched up with CGI to give it the illusion of a grand, large structure. The interior of the hotel was inspired, in large part, by a real place: the Grandhotel Pupp. The sprawling 228-room hotel, also located in Karlovy Vary, began construction in 1896. The building, planned by Viennese architects, became a monument to opulence, and wealthy excess.
Grandhotel Pupp has inspired other filmmakers, and has appeared in other movies. The rich interior decorations and furnishings of Grandhotel Pupp, as well as its elaborately tiled floor, make their way into the Grand Budapest film. Many of the sets for Grand Budapest were constructed in the lobby of a vacant department store in Germany. This empty store allowed the set designers to change the design of the hotel, as needed for filming. The movie spans several decades, and the team had to change the interior décor to reflect this.
Other sets used in the movie are eerie reminders of the era it depicts. The prison scenes, filmed on location in Zwickau Prison, take place at Osterstein castle. Grand Budapest Hotel evokes the beauty and innocence of pre-World War Europe. However, it is impossible to watch the film and not remember that this era would soon come crashing down. The horrors of the Nazi empire forever changed Europe, and Grand Budapest often acknowledges that truth, symbolically. Zwickau Prison was the site of a Nazi prison camp, in real life. Its inclusion is no accident, and it becomes a subtle, dark touch to the film. Grand Budapest uses that setting as a nod to the evil that hounded Zweig the last years of his life.
Other elements of the movie reference the Nazi empire, as well. The climax of the film takes place in an elaborate museum. The scene, shot in the Zwinger Museum, in Dresden, Germany, also conjures the terrors of World War II. Dresden is known for its beautiful art galleries, and was often frequented by the intelligentsia of the 20th century. Dresden later became more famously known as the site of one of the most terrible bombings to take place during World War II. The city was nearly obliterated by air attacks from both the British, and the United States’ Air Force. The writer, Kurt Vonnegut, later wrote famously about it in his novel, Slaughterhouse Five. Once again, in a film that beautifully illustrates a more innocent time, there are intimations of the darkness to come.
Grand Budapest has received critical acclaim since its release. The website, Rotten Tomatoes, has given it four and half stars, and Roger Ebert’s website gave it five stars. The Times also hailed the film’s ability to be both beautifully naïve, and at the same time, incredibly deep. Stefan Zweig would have appreciated this quality. The Grand Budapest Hotel is currently in theatres across the United States.