SHIELDS ON ANDERSON'S GRAND FILM ON VIOLENCE AND LUXURY
Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel begins with a frame story as elaborate as the movie's sets. In the present, a young woman walks through a graveyard to the gravestone of a famous writer. After adding a key to the many hotel keys already hanging on the gravestone, she begins to read a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. The scene cuts to 1985 with the author of the book reading it to the camera. The story he tells goes back to 1968, when he visited the Grand Budapest Hotel and heard Zero Moustafa tell the story of how he came to be the hotel's owner. That story, which takes place in 1932, focuses on the hotel's concierge, M. Gustave.
At the end of the film, Zero sums up M. Gustave's life: "To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it—but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!" M. Gustave's world is that of the luxury hotel; as the hotel's concierge, his job is to create an illusion of ease for his wealthy patrons. As he tells the new page boy (Zero himself), the staff must be both invisible and omnipresent: the patrons must never see the staff unless they want to see the staff, but the staff must always be ready to serve when the patrons want them. The illusion is "sustained" by the staff's performance, and the hotel itself serves as a "frame". Inside it, the "marvelous grace" of that performance; outside it, the world that can be forgotten while one is at the hotel.
But the forgotten outside world can always intrude on that illusion. The wealth of the patrons comes from that outside world, as does the wealth of the hotel's initially unknown owner, who is later to be revealed to be one of those patrons, the ancient Madame Desgoffe and Taxis (nicknamed "Madame D" by M. Gustave). As is revealed when her will is read, her money comes from industry—and especially from the manufacture of armaments. The money that keeps the aesthetic illusion going, then, is based on the very violence that the hotel excludes from its frame.
When M. Gustave and Zero are on their way to Madame D.'s funeral, a war has just started, and their train is stopped in the middle of a snow-covered barley field. The soldiers who board the train do not accept Zero's papers, for he is a stateless person. Their attempt to take him away leads to an uproar with M. Gustave; the noise brings the soldiers' commanding officer to find out what's going on. And here, the illusion is able to overcome the violence that it otherwise keeps at a distance, for this officer, Inspector Henckels, visited the Grand Budapest as a child, and he remembers M. Gustave fondly from his time there. In this train car, then, the aesthetic world of luxury is able to maintain its distance from the violence that makes it possible.
M. Gustave gives a little speech that comments on the scene: "You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh, fuck it." Thus, he both asserts and dismisses ("fuck it") the idea that the illusion of "civilization" can resist the "slaughterhouse" of human violence. The crude language even figures how the "barbaric" overwhelms the "civilized" despite the momentary "glimmer" offered by the reprieve made possible for M. Gustave and Zero by Henckels and his memories of the "graceful illusion" of the hotel. Indeed, when the scene is later doubled in another train ride interrupted by soldiers, the paper Henckels gave Zero to allow him to be free to travel is torn to pieces by the soldiers, and M. Gustave is taken off. The storytelling Zero of 1968 only tells his interlocutor what happened when asked, blithely mentioning that M. Gustave was subsequently executed.
If this second train scene represents the failure of the illusion of civilization to offset violence and barbarism, Zero nevertheless reasserts the power of that illusion by repeating M. Gustave's earlier speech—but this time without dismissing it: "There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity... He was one of them. What more is there to say?" Well, Zero, perhaps this: the aesthetic is itself often a matter of luxury. But unlike the luxury hotel, which must "frame" and ignore the violence that makes it possible, the aesthetic can and must take up its relationship to violence—not to neutralize that violence or even conquer it, but simply to be honest about it. And The Grand Budapest Hotel, itself an example of such "an illusion sustained with a marvelous grace", is entirely honest about the role of violence in the production and maintenance of such illusions.
Andrew Shields' debut poetry collection is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing in 2015.