I first became aware of Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes in 1993 when Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List made him a star in the United States. Fiennes has always specialized in a certain type of character. Whether as Nazi concentration camp commandant Amon Göth or Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort, he is the dark, rancid heart of fascism beating underneath a veneer of European high-culture. In Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson’s latest film, he is redeemed.
It would be hard to imagine a more chilling moment in any movie than the “interview” scene from Schindler’s List. Amon Göth is walking up and down a line of female Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz, looking for a maid for his “villa.” Helen Hirsch, Embeth Davidtz, Göth’s eventually choice, has no desire to be his personal sex slave, to be raped every day in exchange for a little extra food and shelter. But that’s precisely why Göth chooses her. Smelling fear like a trained bloodhound, he zeros in on the terrified young woman, pulling back her coat to reveal her hands shaking violently. “She’s the one,” he indicates.
In Grand Budapest Hotel, Fiennes conducts a very different kind of job interview. Here he plays Monsieur Gustave H., the “concierge” at one of the finest hotels in Europe. Monsieur Gustave H. has a bit of a sleaze factor, but that only adds to his likeability. A gigolo who specializes in older women, he wears a bit too much cologne and pontificates a bit too much to his employees, a captive audience, at dinner, but he’s a petty tyrant with a heart of gold. Young Zero Moustafa, a Middle Eastern refugee who’s been hired on at the Grand Budapest as a probationary lobby boy, is being given a “proper interview.” He has no experience or education that Monsieur Gustav H. thinks is worthy of the Grand Budapest, and everything seems to be going badly until the last question.
“Why do you want to be a lobby boy?” Monsieur Gustav H. asks Zero.
“Well, who wouldn’t ?” Zero responds, “at the Grand Budapest, sir. It’s an institution.”
Young Zero Moustafa is hired. Mr. Gustav isn’t interested in fear, or even education or experience. What he wants is wide eyed innocence and enthusiasm. For Young Zero Moustafa the Grand Budapest is Europe, high culture, the chance to succeed. This is the American Dream in the mythical Central European country of Zubrowska. Monsieur Gustave H. is the mentor he’s always dreamed of. Young Zero Moustafa, in turn, is the sidekick and right hand man Monsieur Gustav H. has always dreamed of. What follows is the most unlikely buddy movie. The middle-aged Fiennes and the 18-year-old Tony Revolori become a pair of “culture warriors,” culture warriors in the best sense, two men determined to preserve the light of civilization against the coming darkness of a Nazi like occupation.
“There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity,” the elderly Moustafa recounts to the story’s narrator at the end of the film. “He was one of them. What more is there to say?”
Monsieur Gustav sees every human being is a rose still in the bud form, waiting to be liberated. “Rudeness is merely an expression of fear,” he says. “People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved, and they will open up like a flower.” He sees beauty in old, even dead woman. “You’re looking so well, darling,” he says to his late mistress, “you really are. They’ve done a marvelous job. I don’t know what sort of cream they’ve put on you down at the morgue, but I want some.” He sees beauty in young women. “I must say, I find that girl utterly delightful,” he remarks to Moustafa about Agatha, his fiancée, “flat as a board, enormous birthmark the shape of Mexico over half her face, sweating for hours on end in that sweltering kitchen, while Mendl, genius though he is, looms over her like a hulking gorilla. Yet without question, without fail, always and invariably, she’s exceedingly lovely.”
The elaborate, baroque, highly stylized world of the Grand Budapest Hotel is a reflection of Monsieur Gustav H.’s character. Wes Anderson is a master at filming snowy, enchanted cityscapes, and sublime, romantic, Alpine landscapes. While Anderson may indeed by a meticulous craftsman, and while the world he creates may have the outward appearance of structure and hierarchy, just underneath the surface is a wonderland of contradictions, anachronisms, and flat out weirdness. Like Mr. Gustav H., Wes Anderson creates an elaborate world of ugliness out of beauty, only to find beauty in the ugliness he’s created. Nobody would find the actress Saoirse Ronan, who plays Agatha, anything but beautiful in the most traditional sense. But Anderson prefers the sublime to well-ordered beauty. He prefers a beautiful girl with a huge birthmark to a beautiful girl with perfect skin. So he builds an intricate wedding cake of a movie, creates The Grand Budapest Hotel, his symbol of European high-culture, only to write dialogue full of anachronism and vulgarity. Then he turns around and finds nobility in the vulgarity he’s just created.
Whether or you not you love The Grand Budapest Hotel or find it a tedious display of cinematic excess will depend on just how much you enjoy looking for a set of tools hidden in one of Mendl’s wedding cakes.