Who fancies a trip to the fictional state of Zubrowka, across several decades? You’ll need to bring an enthusiasm for stealing priceless paintings, an appetite for Mendl’s cakes (think pimped up Laduree macarons and you’re half way there) and an eyeliner pencil to draw on a false moustache like the lobby boy in the very best hotel Zubrowka has to offer. Oh, and a rich old lady clad in Fendi and Prada, if you know any.
No, I haven’t gone completely mad: I’m talking about Wes Anderson’s brilliant new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is an unashamedly quirky tale of tourism, family ties, money, murder and prison etiquette. I fell in love with the film at a recent screening, and I wanted to share some of its best travel-related talking points in more detail.
1930s vs. 1960s
Throughout the film we see two versions of the hotel – the chocolate box vision of the 1930s, complete with luxe decor and pale pink exterior paint, and the retro boxy feel of the Sixties, where orange is the dominant colour and the duvet covers are a floral riot. There are signs of decay, from the crumbling baths to the dismal looking reception, and everything feels distinctly tired. This forlorn atmosphere seems unrelated to the community feel of the 1932 Grand Budapest Hotel, which is awash with guests, furniture and staff, barely an inch of space in the set design.
Whenever you watch a Wes Anderson film there’s a passion for exploring enclosed spaces, but here the hotel really is the star, if you hadn’t already guessed from the title. We’re taken to the staff quarters, the most luxurious rooms, the corridors and the lavish entrance, all of which are given the same level of scrutiny. Look out for bizarre signs dotted around communal areas, such as ‘Spring water: do not drink to excess’.
Behind Closed Doors
What the film really projects is the level of work that goes into running a hotel and keeping each guest happy, to the extent that it becomes a fine art. We see Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy (Tony Revolori), getting his education in the ways of the business; unfortunately we’re just as clueless as him about the amount of effort required and the tasks that need to be carried out, especially for the guests who receive more care from the hotel staff than they do from their own families. Whilst the film turns these bizarre guest-staff relationships into comedy, it’s also utterly believable that rich and lonely patrons could rely on companionship from the people who serve them so well.
Aside from this, the larger concept of being a temporary guest becomes apparent in settings beyond the hotel – Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) turns his prison stay into a chance to carry on as a concierge and serve lumpy meals to the other prisoners, all guests for varying lengths of time; Zero is a secret guest in Agatha’s tiny threadbare room before they marry; Gustave H. and Zero are guests on three trains, experiencing different classes of treatment. But, above all, the audience is a guest, invited into this little world and given the full spectacle, right down to the local newspaper: the tongue-in-cheek Trans-Alpine Yodel, which you’ll see tucked inside a train carriage or being read by a hitman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe).
Zubrowka Landscapes and Local Views
The fictional Zubrowka has that Eastern European fairytale feel that so many travellers crave, and I don’t think Wes Anderson was intending to mock that longing for the stereotype. In this imaginary country we find pine trees, skiing families, narrow streets and a bakery straight out of a children’s story, all set against a snowy landscape. Even the prison where Gustave H. is sent could, in another light, be a sprawling ancestral castle on a hilltop, surrounded by water and forests. Someone on the 20th Century Fox team did make a hilarious Tumblr for the Zubrowka Film Commission to get you in the mood, so take a look and be inspired.
The models made for some of these landscape shots really add to the layered feel of the film, with these physical layers overlapping, especially the funicular railway pushing its way up the mountain. Another effective moment much later in the action involves a trip to an art gallery, with hypnotic layers of suits of armour creating a great backdrop for a chase scene. Whilst there is no Zubrowka Tourist Board to benefit from people wanting to visit the area and go behind the scenes, I reckon the real life filming locations – particularly those in Saxony – will see a surge in tourists.
The Society of the Crossed Keys
Lastly, I want to draw your attention to what I assumed was a totally fictional society featured in the film (and I wasn’t the only journalist to be fooled by this one). The Society of the Crossed Keys, a secret network of concierges from luxury hotels, does exist, albeit with a slightly different name. Think about it: how else would a top-notch concierge be able to act on the whims of their guests so quickly, without pooling their resources and contacts for maximum service?
The Society of the Golden Keys, as the real organisation is known, dates back to 1952 and began in Britain, formed by London hotel staff keen to keep their top clients happy. It soon spread to Paris and further afield, now consisting of 5,000 members and covering an impressive 35 countries. The recognisable badge, replicated faithfully by Wes Anderson, appears on the lapels of each member. This touch of reality seems stranger than fiction in such an unusual film, but I’d love to know more about the Society and the way it operates.
Truthfully, I loved every minute of The Grand Budapest Hotel, because there was so much to take in and each scene felt like it had been crafted so carefully, from the strong artistic direction to the comedic timing and the amazing costumes (look out for pieces by Prada and Fendi, and Olympia Le Tan’s handkerchief introducing the third chapter). This film made me want to visit 1930s Zubrowka and step inside that candy pink hotel facade, into a world of old-fashioned hospitality – something that feels a little lost in today’s society. I urge you to go and see it, just to catch a glimpse of this quirky tribute to tourism amid the mountains.
Disclaimer: The Grand Budapest Hotel is released in UK cinemas from 7th March, but I was invited to a preview screening in order to provide feedback. As ever, all views are my own.