AUSTIN, Texas – It’s easy to watch “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and think you’re seeing genius at work, with all the wry humor and stop-motion animated chase scenes that seem like a signature touch by director Wes Anderson.
But Anderson is quick to point out that he was simply making do with the budget he had and trying to bring the scenes to life as he envisioned them.
So when the persnickety hotel concierge M. Gustave and his trusty lobby boy Zero are being chased by an evil henchman on sleds and skis, Anderson uses animation to make the madcap action-filled moment not only thrilling but also hilarious.
“I could envision it, and I knew what I needed to do to make it like I envisioned it,” Anderson said, “but I didn’t have the budget. I’m not like Christopher Nolan. And there is just no way I could do what I had in my mind without using animation.”
A live-action version of the chase scene would have taken two weeks to film, even for someone as proficient as Nolan, Anderson said. And there would be weeks of preparation before the shoot. “And even if I had that kind of budget,” he said, “I’d probably not be able to get the scene right.”
That last sentence reveals the essence of Anderson’s filmmaking style. He’s a perfectionist, and he works within limits to bring every scene to the screen with a joie de vivre. If that requires stop-motion animation, then that’s what he’ll do. And “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is full of such genius, even if it’s a result of practical necessity rather than divine inspiration.
Such practicality in creating grandiose scenes can be seen everywhere in the movie. The titular hotel, for instance, is supposed to be an elaborate spa in an alpine region of the fictional Eastern European nation of Zubrowka. But the lift to the hotel is clearly presented by using paper cutouts via animation.
Despite the undisguised artificiality of some of the scenes, Anderson works well with Ralph Fiennes, who plays M. Gustave, to create an emotionally complex and realistic hero, even if he is a bit of a fop who routinely sleeps with elderly female guests at the hotel.
Although the movie opens with an elaborate, multigenerational framing device, the heart of “Grand Budapest” deals primarily with Gustave, who’s trying to maintain an air of civility and charm between the monumentally brutal events of two world wars. One of the objects of his charms is the loyal hotel customer Madame D. (Tilda Swinton). When Madame D. dies, she leaves Gustave an extremely valuable Renaissance painting, much to the dismay of her heirs. And when they vow to contest the will, Gustave absconds with the art, leading to a series of chases.
The primary villain who’s trying to kill Gustave and recover the painting is Jopling (a wolfish-looking Willem Dafoe), a henchman for the heirs. He wears black leather, brass knuckles and high-heeled boots.
And it’s important to note that the fight over the estate is an elaborate metaphor for the upcoming fight over Europe during World War II. Jopling is clearly a symbol for the murderous Nazi SS, or as Anderson refers to them in the movie, the ZZ. Gustave, meanwhile, represents everything that’s worth preserving – the grace, the charm, the caring for others – and has what Anderson has called “a wonderful view of life.”
Anderson, a 44-year-old Houston native and University of Texas graduate, said he fleshed out the idea for the film after reading the works of 1930s Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who is widely known in Europe but mostly forgotten in America.
In 1934, Zweig left Austria for England after the rise to power of Hitler and the spread of fascism. His novels and other writings were banned by the Nazis, but Zweig continued to make pleas for personal freedom and humanity amid the rise of intolerance and authoritarianism, even after he left Eastern Europe to become an exile.
To bring such notions to life, Anderson and fellow writer Hugo Guinness began to merge Zweig’s writings with the indefatigable outlook on life of a mutual friend, who always tried to offer “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” as characters in “Budapest” repeatedly describe M. Gustave.
Film lovers will find much more to revel in while watching “Budapest.” Take, for instance, a scene involving a lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) and Jopling, who’s intent on killing him because of the dispute over the painting Gustave has inherited.
As Kovacs (Goldblum) leaves a hotel, you see him walk past women cleaning a floor, and from that moment on, it’s almost a scene-by-scene homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 Paul Newman thriller, “Torn Curtain,” ending in a history museum.
Several critics have noticed the similarities and have called the sequence a brilliant homage to Hitchcock. But Anderson just smiles when it’s pointed out to him.
“I’d call it more like plagiarism,” he said with his trademark deadpan wit.