Friday, 11 April 2014

Wes Anderson's Central Europe: The Grand Hotel Budapest

Moni has long been a huge fan of the works of director-screenwriter Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Express), so his latest film, The Grand Hotel Budapest, was one to see. Set mainly in flashbacks to 1932, in the Republic of Zubrowka , an Anglo-Saxon invention equating to Anthony Hope's Ruritania or the Marx Brothers' Freedonia, employing a blend of Germanic, Slavic and Hungarian-sounding place names.

The film itself is a delightful confection, beautifully shot, pleasing on the eye. And it's laugh-out-loud hilarious, its humour deriving from witty dialogue, situation, slapstick and sight gags in equal measure.

Wes Anderson's vision of Central and Eastern Europe, its physical appearance and its bloody 20th Century history is of particular interest. His visual depictions of Zubrowka (its currency, the Klübeck), were marvellous; the faded grandeur contrasting with its imperial splendour, the cobbled streets, the misty mountains, snow-covered fields; and the history with its social inequalities, jackbooted invasions, ethnic cleansing, and a communist takeover.

Bearing in mind that 80% of Americans don't know where Ukraine's borders are (something they have in common with Mr Putin), Wes Anderson's childlike knowledge of this part of the world is intriguing. We're playing with stereotypes here, as did Sacha Baron-Cohen with Borat's Kazakhstan.

As a teenager growing up in West London, then later as a student in Warwickshire, I too had a fascination with that same atmosphere. I could have placed that Mitteleuropäische klimat within a wide arc from Mazovia to Moravia, memories of travels to Poland through Czechoslovakia as a child in the 1960s, driving at night along cobbles through walled mediaeval towns; shuttered windows, turreted roofs, tramlines, unfamiliar signs, funny cars, militia men with lollipop sticks, steam trains and a pervasive smell of low-octane petroleum.

A film I must see again, although I must confess while a delight for the eye and the funny bone, not one with much depth to it. So much effort went into the sets, the costumes, the artwork - a bit more could have gone into the scriptwriting to make the audience ponder...

Towards the end of the jailbreak sequence, and during the entire ski chase sequence, I found myself feeling that I'm not learning anything here - it's not like spending 90 minutes with the Coen Brothers. But it's not the characters nor the story that I'd go to see The Grand Hotel Budapest again for, nor to look for some message; rather I'd return for that splendid and rather playful depiction for a world that has vanished. We can still pick up echoes of it in Poland, as I did this very morning in Wrocław, getting off the night train on my way to chair a conference...

Just arrived at Główny station (Główny being the capital of Breslavia...)
Tramlines at dawn. Time to find a bank and change my Klübecks
Work goes on to preserve the character of 19th Century Breslavia
This time last year:
Warsaw 1935: a 3D depiction of a city that's no longer with us

This time two years ago:
Cats and awareness

This time four years ago:
Why did this happen?

This time five years ago:
Britain's grey squirrels turning red


Alexander said...

Refering to the article and your tweets about the connectiosn with Wrocław. Improvements are comming:

Please see the table at the bottom.

Best regards,


Michael Dembinski said...

@ Alexander

Many thanks for the Rynek Kolejowy link. I guess the Pendolino will still have to go via Katowice, Częstochowa or Poznań... Until there's a more direct route, Wrocław's not properly integrated with Warsaw. To see the real nature of Wrocław's rail problem, click to see this map here.

Alexander said...

A lot of countries are missing direct train routes between mayor cities. The two biggest cities of Holland got a direct rail connection only 5 years ago, and is only available at premium ticket fares / high speed line prices. Given the Polish history I think it is not too bad, and a work in progress.