The Singular Vision of Wes Anderson
In 1932, Europe found itself in a time of profound change. While it had survived World War I, the Treaty of Versailles left the world radically altered. The Allies took old empires from the East and West, empires that produced the “civilized world,” and transformed them into new organizations called nation states. This precarious, 1932 world—a world between the old “civilized” empire and the new modern world—is the setting of Wes Anderson’s most recent comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel.
At the center of the film is Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the foppish, commanding, and flamboyant concierge at the height of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s fame, a height reminiscent of the grandeur, wealth, and refinement of the old empires. His protégé and eventual best friend is the newly minted lobby boy at the hotel, Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori). Gustave not only keeps the hotel in its finest working order, but he also fulfills the desires of an endless cadre of women, women as old and wealthy as the hotel itself. When one of these women, the aged Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), dies under mysterious circumstances, Gustave and Zero travel to her funeral and surprisingly discover that she has left the concierge a priceless painting, van Hoytl’s Boy with Apple. However, the family’s oldest son, Dimitri (Adrian Brody), is unwilling to relinquish the painting. When Gustave and Zero decide to take it anyway, Dimitri accuses Gustave of murdering Madame D. Gustave ends up in prison, but he eventually escapes, and with Zero’s help, has his name cleared, recovers the painting, and garners much more in the process.
Like Anderson’s recent work, Grand Budapest Hotel presents a marvelous visual display of an enchanting story. And like his other films, this film might also be thought of as an attempt to recover the contours of a lost world, a world that could be more civilized and refined than our own. M. Gustave’s character embodies this very attempt. His nostalgia is best captured in a phrase he utters after police officer Heckels (Edward Norton) shows an undo kindness. “You see,” he comments to Zero, “there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughter house that was once known as humanity.” Though humanity has lost itself to savagery after the war, some of that old, civilized world endures. For all of the admiration that Zero bestows on Gustave, Zero knows that the concierge’s nostalgia is a bit out of place. Toward the end of the film, an aged Zero admits that the world M. Gustave embodies “vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say, he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”
This sustained illusion is one of the key pleasures the film offers, mainly through humor, dated cinematic techniques, and a highly orchestrated visual space. Much of the film’s humor comes from M. Gustave use of language. It embodies the old world but only half-remembered—his language juxtaposes refinement and vulgarity. For example, when Gustave shows Boy with Apple to Zero for the first time, the concierge gestures toward the painting. Zero holds a cup of milk. Gustave speaks with poise and erudition. “This is van Hoytl’s exquisite portrayal of a beautiful boy on the cusp of manhood. Blonde, smooth skin as white as that milk; of impeccable provenance; one of the last in private hands, and unquestionably the best. It’s a masterpiece,” he glances around at the other paintings, “the rest of this shit is worthless junk.” There are similar linguistic and visual juxtapositions throughout the film.
In addition to Gustave’s language, the film uses old cinematic techniques to display Gustave’s lost world. The majority of Grand Budapest Hotel uses an older, squarish aspect ratio prominent during the earliest days of cinema: the silent era and the golden age of Hollywood.
Where most of television and film now appears in a more rectangular, widescreen aspect ratio, the older format harkens back to an out of fashion way of seeing cinema. (Note: The film uses several different kinds of aspect ratios. Check especially the beginning and ending of the film).
The film also uses two obsolete film techniques, specifically from the silent era: shadowed edges and iris effects. Prominent in films like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Anderson uses shadowed edges in a way consistent with some silent films, at a heartwarming scene—the scene where Gustave offends Zero and then apologizes to him. Similarly, iris effects usually appeared in silent films at moment in which directors wanted to draw attention to particular aspect of a scene, as in this moment from D.W. Griffith’s controversial film, Birth of a Nation. A similar technique appears in various scenes of Grand Budapest, not the least of which is the revelation of M. Gustave at the height of his power.
Aside from dated film techniques, the film also attempts to sustain the illusion of a lost world through one particular visual practice: a visual space mapped at right angles. For example, the camera gazes on a world that moves perpendicular or parallel to the camera and its background. Within that world, figures appear at the center of the frame and travel parallel or perpendicular to the background and the camera’s lens.
By way of assessment, Anderson’s work displays at least two virtues, and these virtues can offer some unexpected theological suggestions to evangelical Christians. First, the film admires and uses so-called outdated cinematic techniques, like iris effects, shadowed edges, and squarish aspect ratios with great effect. If Anderson found the earliest film directors helpful, then we might find the earliest Christians helpful, those Christians known as the church fathers and mothers. What D.W. Griffith was to Anderson, so might Irenaeus, Athanasius, or Gregory of Nyssa be to us. What insights church fathers and mothers might yield is an open question; however, if Anderson’s film suggests that contemporary stories can be told with forgotten techniques, then we may do well to listen intently to Christians whom we have forgotten.
Second, the film displays a remarkable degree of discipline and carefulness. The meticulously mapped world is not only clever but also impeccably constructed. Where Anderson thinks and sees with cinematic discipline, evangelicals might struggle to think and act with a commensurate theological discipline. Sadly, we tend to avoid such discipline. We tend to move too quickly to conclusions, and we tend to gloss over the complexities and nuances of Scripture and the world in which we live. Moreover, we tend to place too little value on the hurt that Christians have caused others, precisely because we have been neither disciplined nor careful with our thoughts and action.
If these are the theological lessons we can learn from the film, there is at least one warning, particularly for the way we imagine redemption and resurrection. Although the film has a highly ordered visual space, Christians should resist a view of redemption or resurrection that is too highly ordered. Jesus’ own body bears witness to an alternative economy—redemption and resurrection meets us with gruesome scars. John’s gospel is most adamant about this reality. When Thomas hears about Jesus’ resurrection, he claims, “I will never believe,” until “I place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side” (author’s emphasis, John 20:25 ESV). Thomas’ word “into” makes a terrifying suggestion. Jesus’ nail prints were likely large enough to surround the disciple’s finger, and the gash in his side might have enveloped Thomas’ hand. Resurrection is redemption for John. God raised Jesus’ body from the grave, and his body can do remarkable things, like enter locked rooms. But it is a resurrection that does not disdain gruesome scars. When we imagine redemption, it is important that we imagine it like John does—a resurrection that embraces and displays brokenness. Too much order might neglect the reality of Jesus’ body.
Unlike Grand Budapest Hotel, empires and nation states ended up having much in common, not the least of which was violence of brutal and cataclysmic proportion, even for all the common good they produced. In this regard, Christians do well to resist Gustave’s nostalgia for lost worlds. Those worlds are just as fallen as ours. Knowing that we can, I think, delight in Grand Budapest Hotel’s wonderful illusion and embrace its important insights.
Copyright © 2014 Naaman Wood