The Grand Budapest Hotel oozes nostalgia.
The movie pines for the past both narratively (its central figure is a fastidious concierge who strives to maintain the fading accouterments of polite society) and physically, shot primarily as it is in the boxy Academy aspect ratio that was the standard from the 1930s to the 1950s. It even features miniature models – including a lovely one of the title hotel – that give the impression the story takes place within a snow globe, encased and protected from any future fuss.
This is nothing new for the movie’s director, Wes Anderson. Even his contemporary-set films are tinged with a fondness for times gone by. Yet in The Grand Budapest Hotel - which mainly takes place in the wintry, fictional, Eastern European nation of Zubrowka, circa 1932 - the emphasis is stronger, the desire to perpetuate more felt. Concierge M. Gustave, played by a grandly comic Ralph Fiennes, can sense the winds of change: in the lines on his own face, in the increasing age of the hotel guests he serves (some more intimately than others) and, above all, in the rumors of war that are whispered at the movie’s edges. He tries, futilely, to keep this all at bay with fine linens and quick winks.
The Grand Budapest Hotel handles this all very lightly; indeed, it’s a comedy. Fiennes’ amiable patter, a giddy, stop-motion ski chase and visual gags that frequently rely on the confines of the Academy aspect ratio all add a whimsical air. Perhaps the best way to describe the picture’s particular mix of mirth and moodiness is to note that there are three good jokes involving a murdered cat.
For all the goodness nostalgia allows, it’s still rooted in loss.
Yet if The Grand Budapest Hotel is a comedy, it’s a comedy about the tragedy of nostalgia. For all the goodness nostalgia allows – and Anderson’s fondness for quaint filmmaking techniques is one of his gifts as a filmmaker – it’s still rooted in loss. We can’t long for something unless it’s gone, or on the verge of drifting away. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, everything – tradition, relationships, the characters’ very lives – is delicately ephemeral.
In considering nostalgia, C.S. Lewis suggested that the urge revealed something fundamental about the human experience. He equated nostalgia with our longing to be reconciled with God. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis wrote, “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”
For Lewis, nostalgia is not a dead end, but a hint of a way forward. Or, rather, a way back to how things were meant to be. It not only preserves; it resurrects. The Grand Budapest Hotel can’t quite make this leap, intent as it is on being a rarified snow globe. After all, what’s necessary for the movie’s comic, melancholy notion of nostalgia is that something has been lost. The story that C.S. Lewis and other Christians know, however, is that what once was lost will not only be preserved in some memorialized way, but be wholly found.