In his study of “how Europe went to war in 1914,” The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark challenges the conventional wisdom that Austria-Hungary was an empire in decline heading toward an inevitable downfall. He argues instead that during the last pre-World War I decade, the Habsburg Empire had gone “through a phase of economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity” as well as experimenting with “a slow and unmistakable progress towards a more accommodating policy on national rights.” He argues that could have created the conditions for a process of political reform and devolution of power, perhaps even to the evolution of a federalized system.
Clark recalls that many of the activists and the intellectuals who, carried by the euphoria of national independence, had celebrated the dismemberment of the Austria-Hungary after the Great War admitted in later years that they were wrong. He quotes Hungarian writer Mihály Babits who, as he reflected in 1939 on the collapse of the monarchy, wrote: “we now regret the loss and weep for the return for the what we once hated: We are now independent, but instead of feeling joy we can only tremble.”
While director Wes Anderson’s latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is not pre-occupied with such issues as the sources of imperial decay, the rise of nationalism and other political elements that brought about the collapse of Austro-Hungary, the movie does convey a certain nostalgic longing for that empire’s bygone era, meshed with a certain melancholic sentimentalism shared by those who missed it.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is actually not set in pre-WWI Habsburg at all, but in a resort town in the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka. It centers around the mythical concierge, M. Gustave H. (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) who works at the elegant Grand Budapest Hotel during the pre-WWII years. None of the characters in the movie mention the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that sparked WWI, or the collapse of the Habsburg Empire; for that matter, there are no references to Adolph Hitler and the rise of Nazism.
But in its soft color shades, decorative architectural style, and charming pastry stores, the fictional Zubrowka looks as though it was carved out of Austria-Hungary’s finest days, while the sense of decadence and darkness and foreboding evil conveys the horrors of the approaching World War II. And Anderson himself made it clear in interviews with journalists that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is, indeed, a bittersweet tribute to the bygone era of pre-WWI Vienna.
The movie opens and closes with scenes of a hotel that has been transformed from a monument to the majestic into what looks like charmless and crumbling guesthouse, where the current owner, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), recalls through long flashbacks the days in which he worked as a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) under the legendary Gustave. An educated and well-mannered concierge, Gustave exudes Old World temperament and seems to be unable to adjust to the realities of a crumbling civilizational order, as dandy aristocrats and classy ladies leave the stage and the well-mannered gentleman who headed the local police force (Edward Norton) is replaced by a ruthless Nazi-like militia leader.
Gustave was “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” is the way Zero remembers his mentor. The two are embroiled in the theft of an artwork that becomes the central plot of the film involving a set of characters that you would meet in an Ernst Lubitsch film.
Anderson said he was inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, the renowned early-20th century Austrian-Jewish author who chronicled the waning days of Central Europe before Vienna fell under the rule of the fascists. Anderson’s influences includes Zweig’s fiction, including his novella Grand Budapest Hotel, and his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, written before fleeing the Old World to Brazil, where Zweig and his wife ended up committing suicide in 1942.
After reading Stefan Zweig and falling in love with his writings, Anderson decided that he would “like to do something like a Zweig-esque,” then had the idea to make him a hotel concierge who embodied “how Europe changed, how the world changed during the course of his whole life,” he explained during a press conference in Berlin. For Zweig that change was the end of that world and the reason he killed himself, a theme that Anderson tries to communicate in his movie.
Anderson told the New York Times that he could not reflect on the age of artistic burst captured in Zweig’s writing without feeling “saddened and some sense of tragic loss, of what we had made.” It was this fine culture “that was becoming more and more refined, and [Zweig] said nationalism ended it and ruined it, and led to these dogmatic ideologies,” Anderson added.
When Zweig wrote his autobiography, “his liberal culture, which he remembered fondly, but not uncritically, had been destroyed, and in retrospect, Zweig saw his past—so distant now!—with storyteller clarity that was overstated for the sake of literary point,” writes historian Peter Gay, adding that “real life was usually more nuanced than Zweig was ready to acknowledge.”
Anderson interprets Zweig’s work with his own director’s clarity, one that makes us almost feel nostalgic for a place and a time generated by Anderson’s own imagination.