The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

An unusually serious film from director Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joy from start to finish.

Grand Budapest HotelUSA
4*

Director:
Wes Anderson

Screenwriter:
Wes Anderson

Director of Photography:
Robert Yeoman

Running time: 100 minutes

The Grand Budapest Hotel, besides being a much more serious film than we’re used to seeing from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), makes many a direct play for the hearts of Central and East Europeans.

With its mixture of exquisite period detail, albeit slightly exaggerated, overt references to historical turning points in the region and a typically “Wesandersonian” presentation of the story as visibly but immersively fictional, the film is almost certain to be well received both behind the former Iron Curtain and around the world.

In 1985, an elderly gentleman looks straight into the camera and starts telling us a story that takes us back, first to 1968, and then to 1932, as the rise and fall of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a luxurious establishment somewhere in the Republic of Zubrowka, is displayed in all its alternately decrepit and extravagant excess.

The abovementioned Zubrowka, obviously named after one of the best vodkas I have ever tasted, Poland’s bison-grass infused Żubrówka, is almost as difficult to place as The Simpsons’ city of Springfield. The opening scene, set in a cemetery in the fictional city of Lutz, obviously refers to the Polish city of Łódź, and yet the name of the hotel refers to Hungary, although it is located in the “Sudetenwalt,” or Sudeten Forest, which suggests pre–World War II Czechoslovakia, or thereabouts.

The doubly encased storytelling mechanism (the man in 1985, a nameless author, shares with us how he came to meet the owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa, in 1968, who told him the story – one that dates to 1932 – of how he came to possess the grand establishment) is further framed by the very first scene, in which someone opens a book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, neatly divided into chapters. Also, the exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel is not life-size but rather immediately recognisable as a small, detailed model; many other tricks that sometimes bring to mind Anderson’s work on the stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox continue to make it clear this is a tale enriched by reality rather than one seeking to emulate it.

While Mr. Moustafa is the proprietor in 1968, played by the wonderful F. Murray Abraham (who recently had an equally short but deeply satisfying role in Inside Llewyn Davis), he is but a teenage boy – first name Zero – in the story taking place in 1932, when he starts his work as a lobby boy, in service of the hotel’s famous concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Monsieur Gustave personally tends to every need of his guests, and often those needs require him to spend some time in their private rooms, especially if they are blond.

Monsieur Gustave is great fun, soaked as he is in his L’Air de Panache perfume. Although fastidious to the point of being obsessive, he also has a big heart, and while he has his doubts about Zero’s qualifications to carry out his duties, he quickly warms to the boy and teaches him everything he knows. He also protects him with his life, and his magnanimity, or even friendship, is rewarded when he is locked up after being framed for the murder of a former hotel guest, Madame Desgoffe und Taxis, simply known as Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, enchanting as ever, even as she plays an 84-year-old woman).

The film presents itself as strictly removed from reality, but the traces of history are recognisable and remain potent despite being altered. The Nazi lightning symbol of the “SS” has been modified to appear as “ZZ” in this film, and the delicious pastries are provided by a fancy bakery called Mendl’s, very likely drawing its inspiration from the Austrian producer of gourmet foods, Julius Meinl. Sometimes, not unlike the approach taken by Joe Wright in his film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the lighting changes to indicate a shift in tone, done in such a way as to bring it closer to the theater (in other words, overt performance), and eschews any attempt to give the film an air of grittiness.

And yet, as Anderson has proved so often in the past, his characters can still elicit emotions in us even though they belong to a world so obviously different from our own. Friendship and family are two key themes in the films of the director, and here, too, despite the countless cameos (many well-known actors each appear only in a single scene, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban) and the film’s many moments of whimsy, it ends with a sudden rush of emotions as we come to realise how beautifully The Grand Budapest Hotel and its characters fit together, how much they have been through and how much we have enjoyed their adventures, notwithstanding the unspoken Nazi and communist uprisings that we can read between lines.

This film brims with creativity and ingenuity, as even a ride in a funicular or a bobsled can turn into something unforgettable (for the latter, think of the game of “hotbox” in The Fantastic Mr. Fox rather than bobsledding at the Winter Games). The emotions are also there, very competently handled by Anderson, whose direction of the young Tony Revolori, as Zero, elicits a performance that is flawlessly part of the film. There is also one of the most unusual escapes from prison you will have ever seen on film and a handful of small pans that produce, as Anderson learned so well in The Darjeeling Limited, moments of visual bathos that are as hilarious as they are unexpected.

A very different kettle of fish compared with his other films, this is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most subdued film to date, but he deftly handles the balance between the comical and the dramatic, yielding a work of beauty, comedy and mystery that is every bit as enchanting, funny and ultimately moving as some of his best films.

Schmitke (2015)

Début filmmaker’s surreal mystery set in the Czech countryside is a baffling take on finding identity.

schmitkeCzech Republic/Germany
3.5*

Director:
Štěpán Altrichter

Screenwriters:
Jan Fusek

Tomáš Končinský
Štěpán Altrichter
Director of Photography:
Cristian Pirjol

Running time: 95 minutes

Something is a little off in the German-language Schmitke, which opens in Berlin – where there is much talk of a “Bear-Man” who has been discovered in the wild – and closes deep in the forests of the former Sudetenland, on the Czech side of the border with Germany. Right at the beginning, when we first meet the title character, a middle-aged, unsmiling engineer (Peter Kurth) working for Deutsche Windenergie, we notice this German company has English-language posters on which the word “engineers” is misspelled. It is a small point, but if you notice it, you will immediately recognise that the world of the film is deliberately warped and confused, and things quickly get even weirder.

Julius Schmitke’s daughter arrives out of the blue and (literally) sets up camp inside his house, adding a statue of Buddha to his furnishings and trying to convince him to reconsider his nondescript existence. At work, his boss decides to send him and his loudmouth assistant, Thomas (Johann Jürgens), to the Ore Mountains to fix a broken wind turbine, and once the two arrive in the backwoods of civilisation, where the fog hangs thick and the forest almost becomes a character, everything they knew is turned upside down.

Schmitke is unconventional and uncategorisable, striving simultaneously to be a gentle contemplation of the mysteries of nature and a madcap absurdist thriller. Directed by the young Czech filmmaker Štěpán Altrichter, it is impossible to ever get a firm grip on the events that, as revealed during the final credits, may all just be a big dream.

The opening scenes at the energy company in Berlin have moments reminiscent of Roy Andersson’s work, especially when a crowd of people, expressionless and motionless, intently focuses on the only object in the room that is in motion. For the most part, Kurth’s imperturbable, deadpan performance is very effective, as it counters the actions of others in unpredictable ways. But the major plot point driving the narrative forward – the sudden and unexplained disappearance of Thomas – gets lost in the thick, mysterious atmosphere that Altrichter so painstakingly constructs.

With the exception of Julie (Helena Dvořáková), who runs a fancy hotel on a hilltop, it is impossible to describe anyone in the film as devoid of eccentricity, and the director emphasises the peculiarities of the Czech rural population in particular with sly digs at their language (Julie’s surname is the unpronouncable Řeřichová, the town is Chřmelava) and customs (upon arriving in the tiny town, Thomas proclaims they have travelled back in time; and in the bar, a deadly silence fills the room when Schmitke asks for tea instead of beer).

The style of the film may perhaps be best described as a kind of provincial surrealism mixed with poetic absurdism that leads to scenes such as a GPS system breaking down by changing its mind (“turn right… no… turn left…”) and a wind turbine that seemingly stops and starts just to provoke and confound the rational Schmitke.

Schmitke is no Homo Faber, but in the end, he does show some potential for having a fuller appreciation of the inexplicable. It is just a shame that the film itself nearly collapses in the process. It switches gears too rapidly from broad comedy to observational minimalism, and especially the second half of the film feels like a slow-motion implosion that is only flimsily sustained by the comical sounds of the Hammond organ on the soundtrack and the screeching sounds of the wind turbine struggling to rotate its blades.

Some of the film’s most intelligent details are its small moments of humour, like when Schmitke and Thomas get keys to rooms ‘1’ and ‘3’, clearly signalling impending misfortune, or the unexpected words of wisdom of an old lady at the bar, or the subtle repetition of incidents suggesting we may either be seeing different shades of the same event or people running on a hamster wheel.

There are few answers – even the questions are in short supply – and this lack of concrete information will frustrate many a viewer looking for a sturdy narrative backbone.

Unfortunately, the abundance of shots of the forest and the director’s unwillingness to make language more of an issue (everybody in this Czech hamlet can apparently speak almost perfect German, which leads to absolutely no discomfort, ever) hurt the audience’s involvement in this film that should have been much shorter than its 100-minute running time. Also, a shot in which Schmitke walks off-screen through heavy fog in a fixed long shot could have been utilised much more effectively, for example, by having him re-enter from the other side, at the same or at another location.

Schmitke is an experimental but quirky take on finding oneself. It is not always successful at keeping us engaged, and its second act is unnecessarily slow, but the rich soundtrack and unflappable performance of the lead actor will make this an interesting addition to any festival lineup.

Viewed at the 22nd International Film Festival Prague (Febiofest)