Meaning Behind the Artificiality of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Wes Anderson employs a unique style that permeates all of his films in which the portrayal of scenes alternates between realism and surrealism. Not only is this a quirky method that differentiates him from other directors, but it is a means of advancing the narrative of movies to be about more than just what is being shown to us. In this case, The Grand Budapest Hotel becomes more than a comical story about Zero Moustafa and M. Gustave getting into and out of trouble.

The Grand Budapest Hotel can be dissected into four layers. On the first layer, there is a girl reading a book about the hotel and visiting the grave of the author. Then we are introduced to the author in his old age recollecting his experience as a writer, specifically when he met Moustafa. Then we reach the next layer in which Moustafa is telling the young author the story about him and his connection to the hotel in the past. The story of his connections with the hotel makes up the final layer. Thus, this film is not defined by the story within it, rather it is about the telling of a story long ago, riddled with nostalgia and biases.

As a story of the past, bias, nostalgia, and misinformation seep into what we see on screen as an artificial aesthetic. It honestly portrays the way that the passing on of information affects the reality of the past. The hotel (shown below) we see in this film is not the hotel of reality, but it’s the hotel of the story. The characters are not the people from the real events, but they are caricatures of those people.

An instance of this artificiality shows in the scene where Gustave and Zero are chasing Jopling down a mountain on a sled.

In this short video, Wes Anderson talks about how he made this scene. The artificial look was on purpose. This is a story being told in layers and we are seeing the memory of events and the recollection of interactions accompanied by all their bias and misinformation. This is visually portrayed through artificial looking sets, unrealistic colors, dramatic depictions of reality, and the use of puppets and miniature sets. It represents the cracks in reality caused by memory and nostalgia and in turn the effects it has on storytelling and perception of those stories.

Surreal Visual Elements in The Grand Budapest Hotel

In Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, the director juxtaposes his manufactured reality with quaint, fantastical, and often humorous bouts of surrealism that emphasize the narrative nature of the film’s story.  The film operates with two (or perhaps three, if one includes the screen) degrees of separation between the viewer and its primary subjects.  Anderson uses fantastical pseudo-realism to give Zero’s recollections of M. Gustave, told to the Young Writer and later written and read by an unnamed girl, a sense of whimsy and stylistic freedom.  However, Anderson structures the set in a way that the occasional snap from reality does not lead the viewer to lose trust in the heart of authenticity of the character’s situations.  Many scenes depict characters riding in machinery shown from a distance in a very obvious staging of miniature sets, such as the outdoor elevator depicted below.

Related image

Though this is clearly a break from realism, the viewer is left to believe that the characters, in spite of their interaction with surreal visual elements, remain rooted in the story’s reality.  These visual elements contribute to the framing of the story within the slightly surreal backdrop of Zero’s memory.  The viewer trusts the essence of the story Mr. Moustafa tells, but also recognizes the imprecise nature of recalled memories, especially those skewed so heavily with emotion.  This can be seen in the bronze hue of shots of the Grand Budapest at the height of its operation, illustrating the perhaps idealized memory of a place so dear to the storyteller.  It is also shown when Zero helps M. Gustave escape from prison, as Gustave offers Zero high praise and the screen’s perimeter becomes blurred and hazy.  This shift in framing suggests that Zero may have romanticized his mentor’s remarks to emphasize the nature of their relationship to the audience.

Related image  Image result for grand budapest prison escape

Can the viewer truly trust the recollections of Mr. Moustafa?  Do you think that the surreal visual elements are used primarily to contribute to the fantasy of a memory?  Are they perhaps meant to create to a tone of whimsy and understated humor?