How Many Worlds of Yesterday?
–There’s a stunning scene in the middle of Letter from an Unknown Woman in which a lothario, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), woos one of many lovers, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine). He brings her to a restaurant where a machine operated by the proprietor rotates backdrops next to all of the tables such that it appears the diners are on a moving train. Brand explains that this way, they can see all of Europe—from the beaches of Spain to the wintery Alps—while enjoying their dinner, and without moving. The film, narrated in flashback by Lisa via a letter she has written to an aged Brand, who is about to die in a duel, but has forgotten her entirely, thus offers a meta-cinematic meditation on the relationship between Eros and Thanatos, between love and death.
Letter from an Unknown Woman is part of a tetralogy of late 1940s Hollywood films by German exile filmmaker Max Ophuls which lament the destruction of Europe at the hands of the Nazis. The irony of Ophuls’ American films is that they depict a European world that can only exist in the Hollywood cinema, as the real version lay in rubble. I begin with 1940s Ophuls because he serves as a useful frame for understanding Wes Anderson’s triumphant new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. As the end credits roll, Anderson indicates that his script was “inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig.”
The work of a nearly forgotten Austrian writer who committed suicide in Brazil in 1942 lamenting the Nazi destruction of European civilization is an odd choice for the quirky American comedian Anderson. And yet, via Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel features the same thematic obsessions as an Ophuls film—the human sexual drive for connection is set amidst the destruction of Europe. Letter From an Unknown Woman was based on a 1922 novella by Zwieg, an Austrian writer part of a group of Viennese intellectuals obsessed with sex and death, including Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler, the latter of whom was the source for Ophuls’ crowning achievement, the 1950s European art film, La Ronde, in which a series of ten sexual encounters connects a lowly prostitute to a prince, again set in a fantasy studio holding at bay the fact that the Europe depicted in reality lay in ashes.
The Grand Budapest Hotel concerns a bellhop, now an elderly man, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) narrating to a young writer (Jude Law) a story about his former boss, a hotel concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). The film has all the trappings of Ophuls and the Vienna circle. Gustave the concierge keeps his elderly female clients happy by having sex with them, while around him the unnamed Nazis invade and destroy the civilization that he works throughout the entire film to protect, largely conveyed through a quest after a phony Renaissance painting, “Boy with Apple.” The Grand Budapest Hotel, about the protection of artwork from Nazi barbarity is the film The Monuments Men should have been, but is most regrettably not.
As Moustafa laments at the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave was the “last connection to that vanished world,” and that Gustave’s “world had vanished long before he had entered it.” The moment echoes the tragic ending of The Great Gatsby, in which a similar narrator, Nick Carraway, elegizes the 1920s lost generation: Gatsby’s “dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.” The reprise that is World War II’s devastation of Europe from World War I’s original is not surprising, as the echoes in 1950s Absurdism from 1920s Surrealism attest. However, the appearance of the Eros-driven Thanatos from The Great Gatsby in Anderson’s new film illuminates his grand plan at this hotel, not quite set in the real Budapest.
Stefan Zwieg’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday, a meditation on the decay of Europe in the first half of the 20th century, offers a metaphor for Anderson’s film. As The Grand Budapest Hotel enacts each post-modern reference, yet another example of Eros driving Thanatos reveals itself, not only death at the level of individual characters, but of human civilization itself. The masterful skill of the concierge keeping the chaos of the hotel at bay recalls the greatest of hotel cinema, F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), in which a proud doorman is reduced to an animalistic bathroom attendant, which as Siegfried Kracauer argues, is the smoking gun for the transition of the German soul from Weimar liberalism to Nazi barbarity. Heavily influenced by Max Ophuls, Stanley Kubrick, who adapted Vienna circle Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Novella into Eyes Wide Shut, of course made the quintessential Eros and Thanatos hotel film, The Shining, in which Jack Torrance’s lust leads to the destruction not only of himself, but of the America built atop an Indian burial ground.
Oddly, the closest fellow traveler to The Grand Budapest Hotel that I can think of is not a film at all, but a graphic novel. Lost Girls, written by Allan Moore with images drawn by Melinda Gebbie, features three young women from children’s literature—Lewis Carroll’s Alice, J.M. Barrie’s Wendy, and L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy—sequestered at a European hotel at the brink of World War I. Inspired by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, another narrative in which a hotel serves as the refuge from the impending decimation of Europe, Lost Girls follows the logic of the Vienna circle writers, that the forces of Eros struggle to resist, but ultimately lose, to barbarity. At the end of the third novel in the trilogy, the women’s sexual paradise crumbles as German soldiers burn down the hotel. Lost Girls raises the question of how many worlds of yesterday can and should our culture produce. Given the beauty and significance of The Grand Budapest Hotel, my answer is: as many that celebrate life as we can possibly muster, to redeem, as Wes Anderson’s beautiful scripts puts it, that “barbaric slaughterhouse known as humanity.”
– Walter Metz