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Unbelievably, Wonderfully Grand

March 6, 2014 | by

Wes Anderson, Stefan Zweig, and their sumptuous surroundings.

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A still from The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Looking at this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay, Bill Morris at The Millions grumbled that “Hollywood screenwriters need to mix more fiction into their diet.” He can at least give a pass to Wes Anderson, whose new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is based not just on one novel but on an entire oeuvre—that of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer whose work Anderson has helped revive. In fact, Zweig’s influence on Anderson is so profound that the filmmaker compiled The Society of the Crossed Keys, a new anthology of Zweig’s work. Unfortunately, the collection is only available in the UK, but its constituents—Zweig’s memoir, the novel Beware of Pity, and the novella “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman”—can be found separately in the US.

Both Zweig and Budapest find comedy and melancholy in the changing landscape of 1930s Europe, and Anderson is quick to admit his debt to Zweig. The film features two characters meant as stand-ins for the writer—there’s the hotel’s nostalgic, effete concierge, M. Gustave, and the unnamed Author, who appears throughout as a narrator and interlocutor. But Zweig’s influence on Anderson extends far beyond this latest film. Though Anderson says he came across Zweig’s books only six or seven years ago, the pair have long shared similar themes and aesthetics, even if Anderson didn’t know it.

For starters, consider their fastidious preoccupation with appearance. In an essay examining The Royal Tenenbaums against J. D. Salinger—another of Anderson’s literary influences—Matt Zoller Seitz established a concept called “material synecdoche—showcasing objects, locations, or articles of clothing that define whole personalities, relationships, or conflicts.” Anderson uses his meticulously designed mise-en-scène as visual shorthand for his characters. It’s how we understand the Tenenbaums from their wardrobe, their childhood bedrooms, and the way the opening scene itemizes the things in those rooms. It’s one of Anderson’s favorite storytelling mechanisms—think of Moonrise Kingdom, in which Sam Shakusky’s raccoon hat and glasses set him apart from the rest of the Khaki Scouts; think of Max Fischer’s red beret in Rushmore. In Anderson’s work, the exterior reliably informs the interior. Read More »

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