Nostalgia, Storytelling, and Boxes in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a brilliant exploration of the meaning of storytelling, nostalgia, and audience. The story of Gustave and Zero is filtered several times, as we go deeper, we get more and more absurd: the story told by Zero, recounted by the author, read by the girl, and finally viewed by us, the viewers, takes on more and more fantastical details. Ultimately, we can’t tell how true this story is, I mean obviously Zubrowka isn’t real, but in the context of the movie it is, and the story takes place during a very real time of turmoil for Europe. 

Each character is the audience for the preceding layer. We are viewers into a four level story: each a window and an interpretation of the last. Photographs, paintings, and movies crop reality. Wes Anderson uses boxes (both real, as props, and metaphoric) throughout the movie to frame. He includes many details in his cropped window into the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel, each aspect of mise-en-scene deliberately revealing the world our characters inhabit. We have the drab “modern” day starting, and ending, scene, featuring the girl and cemetery: very significant since nostalgia for a long-dead era is a major theme throughout, the very “smart and successful author” author’s office, the shabby, comparatively simple and poorly mannered 1965 Grand Budapest Hotel, and the pastel, pristine, well taken care of 1932 Grand Budapest Hotel. The scenes all feel like dioramas, particularly the scenes inside (any) hotel. The Hotels, part of the Crossed Key Society, are isolated from the outside world, and whenever the new society represented by the fascists (double Zs an obvious homage to the SS and swastika of the Nazis) invaded into that world, we get conflict and violence. The boxes inhabited by the characters that represent that era of good manners and kindness are both literal and figurative, throughout the film we get windows looking out of those boxes, and we see the hints of war, fascism, and that polite era dying out. In particular, I’m thinking of the scenes on the train, when we stopped by the barley fields.

Here we have the warmly toned train cabin interior, good wine plainly visible.
And here Gustave is looking out of the cabin, and we see this cold, dreadful world on the brink of war.

 

Later on in the movie, we have the black and white shift, and a scene deliberately echoing the previous train cabin scene both thematically and stylistically (cinematography, framing).

Now we have the sudden, jarring shift to black and white. Notice how the cabin window has hints of frost, a harsh “winter” for the world looms.
This time Zero looks out. There’s some awesome character development here, now Zero is the Hotel’s Concierge (based off of his update uniform and the dialogue hinting at Zero’s inheritance). Also, there are a lot more troops, again reinforcing this looming war, and dying polite society. 

Characters seem to be closing, opening, or peering out of the windows/doors of their boxes throughout the film. Agatha, when packing to flee towards the end of the film, shuts out the cold winter world in a moment of (wise) paranoia. The dirty curtains into the storage room of the hotel are opened, then quickly closed with the police arrive to arrest Gustave. And of course, we are peering into their world through the camera, through the story told by Zero, recounted by the Author, and read by the girl. 

All of this is shown by Wes Anderson’s very deliberate mise-en-scene, through costuming (the opulence of the elderly in the hotels and the pretty, colorful uniforms of the hotel staff: which is looked down on by the people wearing the drab black of fascists), the box motif I’ve discussed, framing.. And ultimately, we are the audience, peering into the camera’s window into what was actually the start of a violent era that brought about the end of this pleasant, well-mannered society exemplified by the Grand Budapest Hotel staff, as well as the end of millions of lives. This nostalgia seems to be summed up in what Zero says about him and Agatha: “We were happy here, for a time.” So was everyone. 

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