The Berlinale’s starting gun is fired...and they’re off! The goodies, baddies, and everyone else scurrying up and down and through pastry-pink corridors of The Grand Budapest Hotel at the very height of its splendor, a fantabulous story told to an earnest Young Author, written in a much-loved book, displayed in a magnificent movie-with-a-movie, which tells a tale of adventure, of danger and woe. It is a Grand Old Allegory for Good Old Europe before that Menace we all know-too-well, that of the jackboots, grayness, and death squads in this delicate and once-hopeful period between the two Wars. It is an account proper and polite, of delicacy and charm like a three layered puff-pastry from Mendl’s prominent pâtisserie, giving Voice and Image not to the twin disastrous Ideologies looming over European History like shadows of giants, but rather to their Proud and Optimistic Refusal, although sadly enough not of their Overcoming. It is a Europe celebrated in a way that Never-Could-Be in homage to one of its finest authors destroyed by the Continent That Was—despite his great Art and Talent and for no other reason than Being Who He Is.
How appropriate that this filmed fairytale (replete with Schloße and Chateaux-forts) of Wes Anderson’s Old Continent as imagined in his readings and travels should open the great film festival in the city which was one of the headquarters of that destructive force of hate. A force which wiped out the glorious potential of that fragile and almost Belle Époque, as well as the writer, Stefan Zweig, whose work inspired the filmmaker to write the adventures of Ralph Fiennes’ M. Gustave, a hotel manager and exceedingly charming gerontophile libertine, who insists upon treating others with almost-impossible measures of politeness, dignity and loyalty in a Europe about to lose for the second time in that century its progressivity, and of his Middle Eastern sidekick Mustafa Zero (de Conduite?). The death of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton as an octogenarian) leads Gustave and Zero to daringly filch a pastiche Renaissance masterpiece ("Boy with Apple") rightfully bequeathed to him, but coveted by Madame D.’s spiteful and greedy family. They flee to the Fantastical Republic of Zubrowka (a mélange of Vienna/Budapest/Hungary), located at alpine heights, where they will be chased by various enemies, authorities and Bad Guys, not least of whom is an extremely convincingly menacing Willem Dafoe as arch-baddie Jopling, before M. Gustave's Little Republic’s summary invasion and then destruction by the blitzing forces of totalitarianism.
Besides the inventiveness, hilarity and color, and, let’s be honest, good plain fun, of Anderson’s latest oeuvre, the movie’s most astonishing strengths are its ability to sustain an illusion of grace and throughout find space to make a humanist plea for an Understanding all-too rare in this Cynical Century. One of the film’s most touching moments occurs after M. Gustave and his Lobby Boy fly the coop with the help of the bald, tattooed Ludwig (Harvey Keitel) and his merry band of inmates. After Zero improperly prepared the details of their jailbreak, M. Gustave insults his apprentice and confidant for nothing more than having been a refugee (bridging between those refugees of Europe-past and Europe-present), accusatorially asking his apprentice whatever in the world brought him there in the first place. Taken aback, the spunky Zero tells him of his parents’ murder, his village’s destruction, and his flight to Europe, to which M. Gustave replies, as would only be proper, with an effusive, compassionate, fraternal apology for ever having doubted the depth of his friendship, and for ever having spoken the smallest of insults to his true Friend and Companion.
Perhaps it is Anderson’s Americanism which allows him to posit this incredible optimistic belief—that although History cannot be forgotten, it might yet somehow still make its way forward—without ever having this faith seem overly naïve or uninformed, reminding us of the power of belief, the force of fiction. It is a power gained only when the "real" has been left entirely behind, as it has been so wonderfully at the unreal-yet-possible Grand Budapest Hotel.