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Trailer Deconstruction: Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

by Rodrigo Perez
October 18, 2013 1:47 PM
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Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson movies are possibly the closest thing to an event movie for the … I was going to say something like "indie nerd cinephile set," but the truth is Anderson’s films are beloved by all kinds of audiences—those who love tentpoles, cineastes, sci-fi aficionados, etc. His visual vocabulary is so idiosyncratic, so singular and distinct, it has practically become a brand or genre unto itself and it can be appreciated by anyone who simply loves movies. One of the most influential voices from the past two decades of American cinema, it’s funny to think that Anderson was endorsed by Martin Scorsese way back in the day when the “Mean Streets” director co-signed onto his then little-cared-for debut “Bottle Rocket” several years before Anderson would blow up into a cultural phenomenon (that wouldn’t be until around “The Royal Tenenbaums and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”).

"Somewhere along the way I made this choice: I can force myself to not be what I feel I naturally am or I can just go with it and develop it." - Wes Anderson

And as with any beloved figures, polarizing responses can creep up. In the middle part of Anderson’s career (circa 'The Life Aquatic' and after), some critics began to complain about the familiar stylized elements of his films being a crutch and formula, diorama-like to the point of aestheticizing the emotions of the story (to be fair, some prescribed elements—the slow motion endings, that Futura font, the expected Kinks or Rolling Stone song—were starting to feel a little mechanical at a certain point). The chief complaint was Anderson was repeating himself over and over again. At the end of the day though, while Anderson has made some little efforts to shrug off some the more comfortable elements of his films—going handheld, changing up aspect ratios, ditching his trademark fonts—he is himself, the filmmaker he wants to be and he has fully embraced that. A Wes Anderson film will always be a Wes Anderson film for better or worse (considering just how original and influential he’s been, we’d say for the better).

"[Repeating myself] is not something I think about. I really think about just the world of this movie, and what this one is going to be," Anderson told us in an interview at Cannes last year. "My natural handwriting is neat and it is like my personality. Somewhere along the way I made this choice: I can force myself to not be what I feel I naturally am or I can just go with it and develop it.” Clearly Anderson has chose the latter. 

His latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” just released its trailer yesterday. And most of us around The Playlist wholeheartedly love it (or at least this writer at any rate). It seems that Anderson is fully embracing comedy with this picture; this writer sees it as Ernst Lubitsch screwball comedies as lead by a 1950s Peter Sellers type. Playlist writer Jessica Kiang all made us laugh with this awesome observation: “The lovechild of Barton Fink and Agatha Christie as raised by Groucho Marx. Rendered in cake icing.” The arrival of a new Wes Anderson film is an event—one that often cuts through the noise of anonymous studio films geared for commerce—so we thought, much like we did last year for “Moonrise Kingdom” (a piece you guys seemed to enjoy), that we’d do a similar trailer deconstruction piece and look at some of the themes, motifs and similarities in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Anderson’s previous movies. Beware some super nerdy speculative stuff in here that some could view as spoiler-y.

The Aspect Ratios & The Movie’s Time Periods
I’m the last person to fetishize aspect ratios, but Wes Anderson films are known for their distinctive widescreen look which is due to the way Anderson shoots his films, assisted by longtime DP Robert Yeomen who has worked on all of his films aside from “Fantastic Mr. Fox." Anderson usually shoots in an anamorphic 35mm that is 2.39:1 (or close to that figure, sometimes 2.35.1). The filmmaker changed things up a bit and shot in Super 16mm and the 1.85 aspect ratio for his first period piece “Moonrise Kingdom” (set in the 1960s) and for his second period piece “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson is doing the same, switching things up.

The director has alluded to the fact that ‘Budapest Hotel’ is set in different time periods and the varying aspect ratios in the trailer, and this Anderson interview with Matt Zoller Seitz (author of the recent and comprehensive book “The Wes Anderson Collection”) bear that out. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was shot in 1.33, 1.85, and 2.35. “The movie jumps through three time periods; the different aspect ratios tell viewers where they are in the timeline,” Anderson told Seitz (thanks to Larry Wright for pointing this all out). So what are those time periods? Well, the movie appears to mostly take place in the early-to-mid 1930s—the synopsis says the movie takes place in Europe “between the wars,” (meaning between WWI and WWII), “all against the back-drop of a suddenly and dramatically changing continent” (this earlier synopsis is even more revealing of this point).

Plus the time periods, at least two of them have been confirmed by Jude Law (who notes he has a “tiny, tiny” role). “It’s mostly set in the '30s, and my segment’s set in the '60s," he told The Playlist in an interview earlier this year. Our educated guess (based on the evidence in the trailer), is that the aspect ratios work in a kind of reverse chronological order—the more black in the frame the older the time period, the less black, the more recent (which is basically similar to how aspect ratios progressed in film history anyhow).

GBH, 1.33.1, Academy Ratio

Time Period #1: The 1930s (1.33.1)
Most of the trailer is set in what appear to be the movie’s aforementioned main time period. And so fittingly, Anderson shoots in the old school “square”-like aspect ratio used in that era (1.33:1 or also known as 4x3 or the Academy ratio). There are two other different time periods in the film and as you can tell by these screen caps, they look different and are in 1.85.1, and 2.35.1 (notice that they look similar, but 1.85.1 has less top and bottom “black bars” on it).

GBH, F. Murray Abraham

Time Period #2: The 1960s  (2.35:1)
The trailer is narrated by Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and he is clearly the older version of the lobby boy in the movie named Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). In his voiceover he speaks of his time at “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in his past as a young man. So clearly there’s one period in his youth (the 1930s), and then one when he is older. Going by Abraham’s age (he was born in 1939 and is currently 73 years old) this would probably land Mr. Moustafa more in modern times, but check the aspect ratios (not to mention the 1960s-esque turtleneck that the character sports). It is the same as Jude Law’s aspect ratio which is 2.35:1, meaning this likely the 1960s as well. And while that doesn’t really match with Murray’s age, a) it’s a movie, b) Wes Anderson’s time periods have always been fluid (see the fairy tale New York in “The Royal Tenenbaums” which is set in “modern times,” but feels more like the 1970s).

GBH, Tom, Jude

Time Period #3: Perhaps 20-25 Years After The 1960s? (1.85.1)
The last time period? It’s unclear, but there key clues given away on the poster which tells us whom every actor plays. The characters played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson could be the same person when you A/B the poster and trailer. Jude Law is listed as the “young writer” and Wilkinson as “the author” and their two aspect ratios—1.85 and 2.35—are similar enough to suggest a time and age gap not much different from the two actors. Perhaps Wilkinson is an author working on a book about the “Child with Apple” painting (seemingly the MacGuffin of the movie that ties all the characters together) and perhaps during the 1960s he was interviewing the now older Zero Moustafa as he’s really the only living person to have been around during its theft. Just a wild guess, obviously, but it’s one theory to consider. Time is relative in Anderson’s films so this speculative “20-something year gap” (the age gap between Law and Wilkinson in real life) could place this final period closer to “modern day” (again, that’s whatever Wes wants it to mean).

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  • Skinarcik | March 16, 2014 11:23 AMReply

    The replacement painting is by Rich Pellegrino.

  • Sophie | February 20, 2014 8:05 PMReply

    I don't think the painting's by Schiele, I think it's a pastiche?

  • Pan | January 2, 2014 2:10 AMReply

    All the uniforms pictured are base on those of the WWI Austro-Hungarian army, hence the inspector's Germanic appearance.

  • Zach | October 22, 2013 9:48 PMReply

    For quick run get-aways you can't forget Dignan's last stand in BOTTLE ROCKET.

  • Jake Yenor | October 19, 2013 6:05 PMReply

    Didn't realize any of that, wow.

    - Jake Yenor

  • MAX FISHER | October 19, 2013 11:50 AMReply

    norton looks like sacha baron cohen in HUGO

    kietel looks like the scary guy in PANS LABYRINTH

  • DG | October 19, 2013 2:51 AMReply

    Bottle Rocket and Rushmore are his best movies. Him and Owen are the shit together, they need to write a script together. I'll probably see this but it looks pretty whatever

  • DG | October 19, 2013 2:58 AM

    ^ another^ script

  • nate | October 18, 2013 10:43 PMReply

    thank you for this delightful write up. what good fun. you guys are terrific. keep it up.

  • Big Chap | October 18, 2013 8:29 PMReply

    Stupid article because nobody cares about Wes Anderson, maybe some nerds but really nobody actually cares about him. Grand Budapest Hotel at best will make 150 million dollars at the box office, simply because nobody actually cares about his films.

  • dan | October 19, 2013 10:52 AM

    Not as stupid as your comment.

  • Posts | October 18, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    Great detective work, 90% of this is spot on.

  • f90 | October 18, 2013 6:46 PMReply

    The different aspect ratio thing was done in "More American Graffiti."

  • Brian | October 18, 2013 6:38 PMReply

    Mathieu Amalric could be playing a priest based on the garb but more importantly because the light illuminating his face has a pattern very similar to the mesh in confession rooms. There's often a bit of Catholicism running in Anderson's movies.

  • john morton | October 18, 2013 4:47 PMReply

    Presumably Tilda Swinton is playing the part Angela Lansbury was earmarked to take?

  • Alan B | October 20, 2013 3:27 PM

    She was actually doing 'Driving Miss Daisy' on stage with James Earl Jones, so "wonder" away, but that's still the reason in reality.

  • Pilar | October 19, 2013 5:53 PM

    Scheduling conflict? just how much work has Lansbury got these days? Wonder if she pulled out because the script didnt turn out to her liking?

  • Karen | October 18, 2013 6:59 PM

    Yes, sadly Angela Lansbury had to dropped out because of the scheduling conflict after the filming was pushed back for almost 2 months. Kinda cool that Anderson replaced her with a much younger Swinton instead of recasting with some other 70+ actress.
    Hopefully she'll get a chance to work with him in a future.

  • tristan eldritch | October 18, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    Always feel like this guy should be making dollhouses, or pop-up books, or elaborate wedding cakes, instead of movies, but it looks like fun.

  • hank | October 18, 2013 2:48 PMReply

    what does it mean exactly when you say, "way back in the day when the “Mean Streets” director co-signed onto his then little-cared-for debut “Bottle Rocket” ... Scorsese's only involvement was saying that he admired the movie after it's release, as far as I know.

  • Pilar | October 19, 2013 5:54 PM

    That's all it takes. Scorsese is all things cinema.

  • cirkusfolk | October 18, 2013 8:03 PM

    Yeah, Marty didn't have anything to do with the making of that film. It was more of Robert Redford for allowing it into Sundance and James L Brooks for putting up some money.

  • cirkusfolk | October 18, 2013 2:47 PMReply

    Let me go on record to say Moonrise Kingdom was the first Wes Anderson film I did not like. At first, I was disappointed with The Darjeeling Limited, but have gone on to appreciate it enough to buy the Criterion edition. With that being said, this film looks too closely connected to Moonrise to give my expectations pause. At first I was excited at the prospect of Wes working with his biggest cast yet, and the idea of the film centering around a hotel. But after watching that trailer, I'm afraid the large cast might hurt the film. It appears as though everyone is playing too over the top, stylized characters that would never appear in real life. An such as Jude Law said, most of these actors parts will probably be too little to truely enjoy. Second, as with Moonrise, the period piece setting (which means no pop songs) worried me, as does the set decoration. Ever since Bottle Rocket, Wes' sets have been more and more detailed with every film. Most of the time it works, like in the Life Aquatic but lately, as with Moonrise, it draws too much attention to itself and is too cute or cutes sake. Basically what I'm trying to say is that Wes' films are almost becoming a parody of themselves in the same way Terrence Malicls last two films were. I hope I am wrong because this piece got me more excited for the film than the trailer did. I'm definatley not one to tell Wes he needs to make different types of movies. Actually it's the opposite. Grand Budapest might be too much of a change for me. I like the old font, slo motion and pop songs.

  • P-DUB | October 20, 2013 1:39 PM

    Also, Pilar,

    People are allowed to not like certain films in master filmmaker's canons. I think Kubrick is one of the greatest to ever live and made several of the greatest films we'll ever imagine, but that doesn't mean I have to like Lolita as much as the others. Fear & Desire and Killer's Kiss are also amateur efforts that only vaguely hint at who he would become. I have loved every single Malick film up until this year when To The Wonder did nothing for me. I'll still be there opening weekend for his next release. Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Lean, etc.., all have some turkeys in their filmography (obviously to varying degrees and taste) but that doesn't mean that I can't love them still.

    Blanket comments like the one you made are one of major problems with fandom today. Just because you love one thing doesn't mean you can't like something else they made. People are allowed to be disappointed.

  • P-DUB | October 20, 2013 1:33 PM

    Doesn't this seem like a huge over-reaction to a trailer? That's a pretty hardcore breakdown about what you don't like about a film you haven't seen a single full scene from.

    And the lack of pop songs concerns you yet you're complaint is that Anderson has become a parody of himself for doing the same thing?

    And you think the sets in this film go too far and call attention to themselves yet you have no complaints about the Tenenbaum house or the various ships, outfits, sets, and creatures from Life Aquatic? Or the entirety of Fantastic Mr. Fox?

    I think you should probably go into the film with an open mind. I don't take any issue with you not liking Moonrise Kingdom, just that you seem so ready to not like this new film from a filmmaker you generally love based solely on the trailer? Give it a shot! I like that it's a big, goofy, ensemble comedy. It seems more overtly slapsticky and plain fun. I think that seems like something Anderson would do very well and I'm excited.

  • Pilar | October 19, 2013 5:57 PM

    You had me until Malick. To not like a Malick film, is like someone not liking a Kubrick film. You're entitled to your opinion but it doesn't mean anything lol. The same certainly cannot be said about Anderson.

  • brou | October 18, 2013 2:12 PMReply

    I don't think that just because the hotel is the "grand budapest" it should imply that the film takes place in hungary. I mean there's "schloss lutz" on the gate, schloss means catsle in german.
    By the way I'm particularly curious of the way the nazi-like invasion will be treated... Using some kind of -let's put it like that- parodic nazi visuals (the "ZZ" stuff) could be a risky choice. Maybe there will be some narrative device with the different timelines, with different unreliable narrators who fantasize and enjolivate the actual story.

  • ferencv | October 18, 2013 4:03 PM

    It looks like it's set in the Swiss Alps + only one character, Jeff Goldblum's has a Hungarian name (Kovacs).

  • RP | October 18, 2013 2:30 PM

    Put it this way. I fully agree with all your posits (piece was getting long enough as it is, but Wes did bring up Hungary in past interviews). It could easily be set in a Wes Anderson-y Eastern European country that has elements of Hungary and Germany and yes the ZZ stuff is very Nazi-like and with the backdrop of WWII on the horizon "the ever changing continent" I'm sure that's meant to be alluded to in his fanciful way.

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