There is something about human spaces that speaks to us directly, that triggers every human impulse we love and fear about the world. Several years ago I visited Barcelona, a city that is renowned for its unique and colorful architecture. I was swept up in the romance of color, the cake-like spirals and soft curves of Gaudi’s churches and parks, but it wasn’t until my friends and I visited an old, gutted church in the heart of Girona that I understood God, or at least, what human beings call God. The Girona church was simpler, less ornate and almost empty, unlike any of Gaudi’s churches, which were filled with as many tourists as there were practitioners. I felt dwarfed by the height of the ceilings and frightened by the coldness of the walls, the stillness inside of me. I’ve felt awed by the earth before, by sunsets where the sky collapses into color, by the silence of an empty beach, the moon lighting up the ocean. But none of these experiences managed to move me as strongly as this moment in an entirely man-made space.
Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is about human spaces as much as it is about people. For years now, Anderson has meticulously crafted and created architecture that elicits amusement and awe—each child’s bedroom’s in The Royal Tenenbaums is an entire world, each space a character in and of itself. Steve Zissou’s ship in The Life Aquatic is warmly planned and meticulously crafted. Even the campsites of Moonrise Kingdom show the quaint necessity of human planning, of the obvious, almost primordial need human beings have to craft and create their space in the world.
The Grand Budapest Hotel elevates this intimate understanding of place to a greater status. The hotel, though shot in delicate pastel hues, seems as grand and impenetrable as the mountains surrounding it. When we first see the interior of the hotel, we see that its once beautiful and extravagant facilities are all in disrepair. Mr. Moustafa, or Zero as we come to know him as a younger man, has allowed the hotel to fall into a space of gentle decay, neither closing the hotel nor providing the proper maintenance to keep the hotel alive.
At surface, the film seems plays out like a mad caper, a zany, colorful fable, with entertaining characters, but at its heart, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson at his most melancholy. In the film time does not heal all wounds, and characters do not learn and grow and triumph. They endure, despite the war and because of their commitment to love and honor. This is a film about loyalty, about being faithful to the places we love as well as the people we long to come home to. When Zero Moustafa stays at The Grand Budapest, he chooses to stay in the same room where he lived as a lobby boy, the first place he was able to call a home after becoming a refugee and an orphan when his parents were killed during a never named war in a far-away place.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is the privately carved world of Monsieur Gustave, the hotel’s concierge who has made the hotel his life, and who loves the hotel with every part of his being; it is also a symbol, which changes constantly over the course of the film. Regal and imposing in its early days, the hotel is as much a place for the wealthy to escape from the realities of the world as it is a place of refuge for Zero, who has nowhere to go. Over time, the hotel loses its luster and fades into a symbol of the ravages of time, as much as it showcases the ravages of war.
A building isn’t a photograph or a letter. It can’t be easily destroyed. I’ve lived in Northwest Washington, D.C., for almost eight years, the longest I have ever lived in a single city in my adult life. Over the years, the city has taken on different shapes and shades. When I first moved to D.C. from Boston, I thought the new city would save me: from the fear of not knowing what to do after I graduated from college, and from the end of a relationship with a person I couldn’t imagine being without. D.C. cracked me open in a way cities I had lived before never did. I eagerly learned its rhythm. I wanted to call it home.
In D.C., everyone is going somewhere new. There is a tremendous amount of pressure to get ahead, to go somewhere else, to transition into the next best thing. A lot of urban American cities are like that. But it takes time to truly love a place, just like it takes time to truly love a person. Places we visit for short periods of time remain tinged in romance, the warm light of nostalgia, but places that feel like home involve more complicated relationships, housing both wonderful and terrible memories.
I have often had to reinvent myself in this city, and by reinvent I mean I had to reorient myself in relationship to the city, after people I cared about left it, or left me, or I left them. Sometimes places still evoke vivid memories and I find myself randomly shaken for no apparent reason, overwhelmed by the sight of a restaurant or tree or crack in the sidewalk I had once known in connection to someone else.
Zero is grateful for the Grand Budapest, because the small closet-sized room he is offered as a lobby boy is his safe space, a place for someone who had nothing. But when the author, who is never given an actual name, interviews Zero about why he decided not to close the Grand Budapest , Zero said he decided to allow the hotel to remain open in honor of his wife, Agatha, who had died years before. “We were happy here,” he tells the author, remembering the times that he, Gustave and Agatha all spent together.
Of course, the places we love are nothing but reflections of ourselves. After Gustave is wrongfully accused and arrested for the murder of Madame D., an elderly patron of the hotel that he was having an affair with, he is sent to prison, where he behaves the same exact way he did at The Grand Budapest, offering plates of gruel, as if they were slabs of filet mignion, to his criminal compatriots.
If the places we live make us, we also make the places we live. No wonder Zero Moustafa doesn’t have the heart to tear down a world he loved dearly; and no wonder he didn’t have the heart to build it back up either: after Gustave and Agatha were gone there was nothing left to rebuild. Any refurbishing would have been a new creation. In the end, The Grand Budapest is offered the peace of cremation, as every part and piece of it slowly drifts away.
Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story
contests. She is currently writing her first book.