BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – In the “olde curiosity shoppe” that is Wes Anderson’s imagination, scenes are chockablock with pop-culture knickknacks, obscure literary references, shades of classic Hollywood movies, miniature toyland tableaux and a rogue’s gallery of outlandishly stylized characters (or caricatures), all overlaid with a dusting of lyrical irony and hipster whimsy.
That’s especially true of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the eighth and most academically ambitious movie yet by the Texas-born original whose idiosyncratic vision is, among modern artisanal filmmakers, perhaps approached only by those of former skateboarder Spike Jonze (“Her,” “Being John Malkovich”) and French fantasist Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).
Anderson modestly admits to an artistic kinship with Jonze and Gondry, but in fact his output – from his debut in the chill road movie “Bottle Rocket,” through his offbeat one-two masterworks, “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” to his philosophical animated work in, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and the Boys Life fantasy of “Moonrise Kingdom” – puts him squarely at the head of this class of bohemian visionaries.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is Anderson’s attempt at synthesizing his recent expatriate experiences into what he calls a “European” movie. It recounts a tale of stolen Renaissance art and the antic adventures of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the suave concierge at the titular European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolari), the sheepish lobby boy who becomes his most trusted protégé.
Anderson has lived off and on since 2005 in Paris, where his literary horizons have expanded to include a newfound admiration for the generation of European directors who migrated to Hollywood in the 1930s and for the romantic writings of Viennese author Stefan Zweig.
During press interviews for the film, hosted by Fox Searchlight Pictures at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo, this slight, bookish, long-haired child of Houston, Texas, was decked out in a smartly tailored, brown herringbone tweed suit that made him look like a cosmopolitan habitué at the ornate, Belle Époque hotel of his film.
“I think the impact (of living in Paris) is why I wanted to do this film in the first place,” Anderson said. “I wanted to do a ‘Europe’ movie in the abstract. Usually the thing I want to do a movie about these days is the thing I’m interested in right then.
“I had gotten very interested in India at one point and I wanted to learn about India,” he said. “I was interested in Indian filmmakers and some films that had been made in India by foreigners, and so I sort of pursued that (in ‘The Darjeeling Limited’). In the case of this one, I was interested in what I was seeing and where I was living and what I was reading that had to do with Europe. So even though it’s got an historical context, it’s still very personal to me because I have my own relationship to the world that we’re making this story about.
“And also the character played by Ralph (Fiennes) – the real inspiration for Gustave H. – is a real person, a European friend. So in its way it comes from things that I’ve seen in my life. Not from my own life but from what I’ve observed.”
In preparation for shooting the film on location in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, Anderson delved into a number of Hollywood classics of the era – including, among others, Frank Bozage’s “The Mortal Storm,” Edmund Goulding’s “Grand Hotel,” Alfred Hitchock’s “The Lady Vanishes” and “The 39 Steps,” and especially Ernst Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” and “To Be or Not to Be.”
“With this movie in particular, and for every movie, there’s lots of different other movies that I’m stealing ideas from,” Anderson said. “In this case, I think more than anything it was ‘30s American movies but then also probably works by Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir and others. But more than anything the Hollywood ‘30s movies and especially movies there were made by central European directors who ended up in Hollywood.”
But above all, his movie’s philosophical undercurrent owes much to Zweig, the Austrian-born writer whose gem-like stories and novellas of romantic longing made him one of the most popular European authors of the 1920s and ’30s. Eventually, Zweig, mourning the rise of Hitler and the loss of his beloved Vienna, decamped to America and later Brazil, where he and his second wife committed suicide.
“The Vienna Zweig was growing up in when he was a teenager and a young man, he calls it ‘the world of security,’” Anderson said. “Art was the center of everything, and the morning paper had poetry in it and philosophical texts, and there were new musical compositions debuting all the time. Their rock stars were playwrights. They didn’t have passports. Their freedom was assumed. That’s how he described it.
“The first Zweig book I read was ‘Beware of Pity.’ And I just loved this book from the first page,” he said. “And I started thinking maybe I could adapt one of his works. I read ‘The World of Yesterday,’ his memoir, and this made a very strong impression on me in a different way. It’s his description of Vienna and Europe before 1914 and the series of changes that for him are just the slow suicide of this whole culture. But the story in our movie is not anything to do with Zweig, and the characters, especially the main character, they don’t come from Zweig. Nevertheless I feel like it’s me trying to do a version of his world.”
Ultimately, although his movies invite, even demand, intense interpretation and analysis, Anderson said he tries to leave that game to others.
“Usually I don’t think about my movies thematically. I don’t like to,” he said. “I like to just think about making an experience for somebody. And how somebody interprets it or reads it is … well. I’m interested in that, in other people’s thoughts about it. I don’t really want to put my own thoughts about it out there, and I don’t like to define or interpret the story because I want it to have enough abstraction. I want it to be unconscious, like life, I guess. Does that make sense?”