Wes Anderson’s Austrian Muse: Stefan Zweig
For all their comedic momentum, a strand of sweet, melancholic nostalgia runs through Wes Anderson’s films; they’re all, in some way or other, about a loss of innocence. The stultified former child prodigies of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); the now washed-up but once great eponymous explorer in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004); the three brothers attempting to re-forge their fraternal bonds in The Darjeeling Limited (2007); even George Clooney’s glib Mr. Fox is in search of a now long-gone easier way of life; and of course, the glorious near-prelapsarian idyll of Moonrise Kingdom (2012), a film that looks like it’s been shot entirely through a sepia Instagram filter.
It comes as no surprise, then, to find that the screenwriter/director’s latest offering, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is inspired by the grand traditions of Viennese author Stefan Zweig. Set in the fictional Eastern European republic of Zubrowka, the film transports us back to the glamorous (and dangerous) gilded decadence of the 1930s. This is the Grand Budapest’s belle époque. The bright-pink turreted Schloss perches amongst the Alpine scenery like a tempting iced cake dusted with sugar, its chandelier-decked and plush-carpeted interior ensuring it’s the go-to spa resort for Europe’s wealthy aristocracy, their every whim taken care of by the charismatic hotel concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (expertly played by Ralph Fiennes). The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s tribute to the now bygone age that Zweig—one of Europe’s most acclaimed and widely read authors of the 20s and 30s—made famous in his works.
Zweig was born into an affluent Jewish family in Vienna in 1881. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, and his mother, who hailed from a well-off banking family, was cultured, international, and cosmopolitan. He published his first poems and stories while still a student at the University of Vienna where he took a philosophy degree, during which time he also began writing for the Neue Freie Presse, then the city’s main newspaper. Zweig’s Vienna was a city of culture: his contemporaries were the likes of Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler; actors, musicians, and writers were held up as famed celebrities; and the city’s ubiquitous coffee houses a constant source of intellectual debate, conversation and information. “Perhaps nothing contributed so much to the intellectual mobility and international orientation of Austrians,” writes Zweig in his memoir The World of Yesterday, “as the fact that they could inform themselves so extensively at the coffee house of all that was going on in the world, and at the same time discuss it with a circle of friends.” His short story ‘Buchmendel’ captures this environment perfectly, the second-hand book dealer Jacob Mendel sits at his regular table in the Café Gluck “from morning till night” for thirty years, until, with the advent of war, he’s violently deposed from his seat. This is precisely what makes Zweig so perfect an inspiration for nostalgia-obsessed Anderson—Zweig is there at the very moment of old Europe’s loss of innocence, The World of Yesterday documents in full its fall from grace from what he terms “the Golden Age of Security” (a “world of individual liberties”, a Europe that “once rejoiced in a kaleidoscopic play of variegated colours”) into a pit of “suicidal rage”, a world “clouded, darkened, enslaved and imprisoned”. Read with the hindsight afforded us now, this damning indictment is also an eerie foreshadowing of the tragic fate awaiting Zweig himself: just months after presenting his memoir to his publishers, Zweig and his wife were found dead in their house near Rio de Janeiro, the result of a barbiturate overdose in an apparent suicide pact. Like many of his fellow Jewish intellectuals, with Hitler’s rise to power, Zweig was forced to flee Austria. He left Vienna in 1934, he and his wife moving first to London, then New York, before settling in Brazil, where they eventually died eight years later, in 1942.
Many authors are lauded for successfully capturing the zeitgeist but Zweig outdid them all. His wonderful stories capture fin de siècle Vienna in the final splendid years of the Habsburg Empire and the decline of Europe into the thrall of national socialism in the inter-war years: distinguished cavalry officers operating by strict codes of honor and conduct; the city’s celebrated intellectual life; the rampant prostitution that lurks beneath the veneer of polite society – “the dark vaulted cellar above which rose the magnificent structure of bourgeois society, with its immaculately dazzling façade” – the only, and thus much-utilized, outlet for eroticism outside of marriage. His stories are quietly evocative, his protagonists humanly flawed and flawless in equal measure – the heroes and heroines of tragic romances so embedded in the minutiae of the everyday as to steer widely clear of the melodramatic.
Despite being published by small independent presses in both the US (NYRB Classics) and the UK (Pushkin Press), Zweig’s work, remains for the most part unknown. In an interview with Zweig’s biographer in February of this year, George Prochnik, Anderson explains that he came across the author’s work, in the form of his only full novel-length work Beware of Pity, “more or less by chance” only six or seven years ago. The novel is the heartbreaking story of a doomed romance between a young cavalry lieutenant and a crippled girl. What begins as a simple faux pas—he politely asks the young woman to dance without being aware of her disability—quickly gathers momentum, eventually resulting in a saga of guilt and misplaced pity. “I loved this first book,” the director explains, “and immediately there were dozens more in front of me that hadn’t been there before.” He was hooked.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, is not a straightforward adaptation. Anderson confesses it contains “elements that were sort of stolen” from both Beware of Pity and The Post Office Girl, a novel (the manuscript of which was found amongst Zweig’s papers after his death and then published posthumously) that reworks the classic Cinderella story to tell the tale of young Christine, a provincial post office worker whose fairy godmother appears in the form of a telegram from her rich American aunt, inviting her niece to join her as a guest at an expensive Grand Budapest-like spa resort in the Swiss Alps. Indeed, Pushkin Press are about to publish The Society of the Crossed Keys: Selections from the Writings of Stefan Zweig chosen by Anderson himself and named after the (fictional) secret society of concierges that features in the film. The collection includes Prochnik’s interview with the director; the short story ‘Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman’, the story of a brief but passionate affair between an English widow and a broken Polish aristocrat, the fallout of which haunts the woman for the rest of her life; and extracts from Beware of Pity and The World of Yesterday.
It’s the general ambiance of the latter, though, that seems most effectively to have permeated the film, a production perhaps best described as Fantastic Mr Fox meets The Shop Around the Corner—Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 rom-com starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and the original You’ve Got Mail (Lubitsch, incidentally, was a fellow Viennese émigré). As was the case with Mr Fox, Gustave H. is clearly the star of the show, but the lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), is his much-valued Kristofferson-esque sidekick—the high-speed adventures the two are catapulted into following the sudden death of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a regular guest at the hotel and one of Gustave’s many octogenarian lovers (he likes them “rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, and blonde”), completely in synch with the subterranean escapades of their vulpine predecessors. These genuinely hilarious and distinctly Anderson-esque capers—from a fast-paced prison break, cable car chases up snowy mountains and run-ins with Nazi-like black-shirted troops—couldn’t be further from the quietly tragic lives of Zweig’s characters, and Anderson’s chocolate box cover-like Zubrowka is about as realistically European as Lubitsch’s Budapest– they’re both hyper-real versions of a romanticized ‘Europe’ that exists only in the rose-tinted lens of a Hollywood director’s movie camera. Nevertheless, The Grand Budapest Hotel is distinctively and uniquely Zweigian.
Zweig employs that gloriously Jamesian technique of a framed narrative in many of his stories, a device borrowed by Anderson in the film (and distinctly suited to a director who often employs literary techniques, such as the use of chapters), each layer of the story is tightly packed inside the one that comes before, like a filmic Russian doll. The story of the Grand Budapest Hotel spans a fifty-odd year period. The film begins with the introduction of our narrator, a now middle-aged writer (Tom Wilkinson) who recalls how, during a stay at the Grand Budapest in the 1960s, he (his younger self played by Jude Law) met the hotel’s owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who, in turn, and over the course of a candlelit dinner together in the then postwar communist-ravaged dining room, relates the story of how he came to acquire the establishment, his story beginning when he was just starting out as a lobby boy in the 30s, a newly arrived refugee from his war-torn Middle Eastern homeland.
For all the stop-motion antics that have come before, as the film draws to a close, the Grand Budapest, now laxly-run and with hardly any guests, has been reduced to little more than “an enchanting old ruin”, the last remnants of a now long since “vanished world”. This was the world of Gustave H. our narrator assumes, one of refinement, poise, and impeccable service. But no, “His world had vanished long before he ever entered it,” the lobby boy-turned hotelier replies, “but he certainly sustained the illusion with a remarkable grace.” One feels the same sense of dislocation reading Zweig, his world is indeed a “world of yesterday”. “Now that a great storm has long since destroyed it,” he writes melancholically in his memoir, “we know at last that our world of security was a castle in the air.” Nostalgia is, and can only ever be, retrospective—it’s not a longing for what one actually had, but for the fantasy of what you think you’ve lost; this is precisely why the European stage-sets made by Anderson and Lubitsch seem almost more real than the reality we know to be true.
So too, a hotel is the perfect site for nostalgia. It was to London’s West End establishments that Europe’s exiled aristocracy retreated, both physically and mentally, during World War II, drowning out the sound of air raid sirens with martinis and jazz. Hotels are liminal, half places; to cross the threshold of one, to be housed in this temporary space is as much an emotional as a physical experience. In The Post Office Girl Christine is plucked from obscurity and swept up in the luxurious, perfect world of the Swiss spa resort, but this dream cannot last forever—suddenly falling out of her aunt’s favor she’s forced to return to her now unbearably mundane and monotonous work at the post office. Life in a hotel shields you from the world outside; Madam D., for example, is overcome with feelings of dread every time she leaves the sanctity of the Grand Budapest, and in Hotel Chevalier, the short film Anderson released alongside The Darjeeling Limited, Jason Schwartzman holes up in this Parisian establishment in an attempt to gain some respite from his life. But they can, of course, also be the loneliest places in the world, an empty room full of nothing but ghosts from your past. “I am well aware of the unfortunate circumstances, so characteristic of our times, in which I am trying to give some kind of form to these memoirs of mine,” writes Zweig in the Foreword to The World of Yesterday. “I write in the middle of war, I write abroad and with nothing to jog my memory; I have no copies of my books, no notes, no letters from friends available here in my hotel room.”