Already, in Rushmore, you could sense that Wes Anderson felt a nostalgia for world-historical sufferings he hadn’t endured. It’s not an uncommon imaginative kink among the more privileged Americans of his age group, the ones who reached adulthood in the safely self-involved years between the demise of the Soviet bloc and the start of the “war on terror.” In the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer—those reconstructions of the twentieth century’s Top 10 enormities, done in a mode of sighing whimsy—you may find one example of an artist of this generation measuring his ease and cleverness against the horrors of the past. Another example is Rushmore, where a 1990s prep-school boy idealizes the Vietnam War as a test of manhood that he will never get to pass, and a thrilling adventure (known entirely from movies) that he can re-create onstage.
In Rushmore, at least, this longing for one’s own private Tet offensive was not a generalized condition, but the trait of a single decidedly immature character. Something similar might be said of The Royal Tenenbaums, in which a drug-addled novelist, who has faced no greater challenge in life than going to bed with Gwyneth Paltrow, tries to turn himself into a buckskin-clad facsimile of George Armstrong Custer. By the time Anderson got to Moonrise Kingdom, though, his disappointment at having missed all the good bloodbaths had leaked out of the character and into the movie’s atmosphere. It did so charmingly, of course, with a becomingly modest if highly detailed sense of play; but when a Boy Scout came onscreen dressed and outfitted like a nineteenth-century frontiersman, it was clear that Anderson was now doing more than delineating an individual. He was evoking a desire that’s in the air, a half-embarrassed, half-guilty wish to know something of the great convulsions of the past, if only in the form of miniaturized romance.
In that spirit, the first thing Anderson does in his new movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is go back in time, from frame story to frame story, as if to acknowledge how far he stands from his main characters, who live amid the rising fascism of Central Europe in the 1930s. The last thing Anderson does in the movie does is collapse that temporal distance abruptly, as if snapping shut a telescope. You’re in a film ruled by incongruities of space and time, in which you jump from the toylike, flat animation that provides the first view of the Grand Budapest Hotel, high in the mountains of the fictitious nation of Zubrowka, to the perspectival vastness of the hotel’s lobby, which looks as if it could swallow all of Last Year at Marienbad (except that Marienbad was shot in wide-screen, and Budapest mostly uses the squarish format of 1930s films). Anderson cuts from the absurdly coffinlike dimensions of an imperial-red passenger elevator, barely big enough to hold four people if they don’t breathe, to the equally absurd expanse of a dining room where a party of two is surrounded by an acre of empty tables. He juxtaposes the prisonlike confinement of a hotel employee’s room with the vertiginous grandeur of a real prison; he contrasts the doll-size quarters occupied by a pastry-shop assistant—in the Central Europe of myth, all cream-filled shells are works of art—with a castle’s cavernous hunting-trophy hall, which is as big as all outdoors.
Above all, Anderson plays with the incongruities of age, size, personality and acting craft of his two principal figures: the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel in its heyday, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and the hotel’s novice lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). Middle-aged and teenaged, tall and short, worldly and naïve, overbearing and eager to please, Gustave and Zero are the latest in Anderson’s line of morally questionable older men and the intelligent lads they instruct.