The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, 2014)

by Christopher B. Barnett

The word “nostalgia” is typically associated with a maudlin recollection of the past, but its explicit meaning is even more pointed. Taken from a pair of Greek terms, nostos (homecoming) and algos (ache), “nostalgia” literally involves a painful ache to go home — indeed, a home-sickness for a time or place that no longer exists. The term was originally applied to soldiers, who, stationed abroad, longed to return to their home country. Indeed, for a time, it was categorized as a proper disease, which, if left untreated, might lead to suicide. “Nostalgia,” then, bears more than a little resemblance to a word that is more favored today — “depression.”

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is profoundly nostalgic. Under the careful hand of its auteur, virtually every scene bears a longing for a world that no longer exists, both (to borrow a phrase from Flannery O’Connor) its manners and its mystery. The plot centers on Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in a spot-on performance), the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel — a resort famed for its alpine views, Roman-style baths, wine selection, and, perhaps above all, Monsieur Gustave H. himself. The sort of old-world figure unthinkable in a society of Holiday Inns, Gustave lives to serve the guests of the Grand Budapest, from arranging their suites to (in the case of elderly dowagers) providing sexual favors. His ethical code, then, is not explicitly of the Judeo-Christian variety, but it’s not exactly opposed to it either. For Gustave, there is a right way to do things: champagne must be vintage, trysts discreet, and others treated with decorous respect. And, as the (rather intricate) plot develops, it is this insistence on interpersonal civility that is his undoing. For society, under pressure from totalitarian forces, is moving toward an altogether different set of values — avarice, bland uniformity, and, perhaps most worrisome for Gustave, rudeness. Thus the concierge comes to represent, in the words of one character, “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.”

Of course, the longing for bygone days and ways is typical of Anderson’s work, from Rushmore‘s portrayal of prep school clubs to The Life Aquatic‘s celebration of Jacques Cousteau. One might even say that Anderson is a “nostalgic” director, and, as noted above, this is no small matter. It means that his films, however pristine, however quaint, convey a certain kind of sadness — one apt to stir up feelings of ache for worlds (school plays, summer camp, pre-war Europe) that we no longer have access to.

This tendency, for Anderson, extends to Christianity as well. Many of his films include depictions of traditional Christian (and especially Catholic) habits, practices, and offices. There are priests, nuns, altar boys, school uniforms, sacramentals, sacraments, and so on. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, one of the dowagers asks Gustave to have a candle lit for her in the (fictional) Cathedral of Santa Maria Christiana. It is a flitting moment, but, seen in the context of Anderson’s oeuvre, it is one that makes sense, harking back to a religious decorum now frequently neglected in the West.

It is, in short, nostalgic. And, as with all nostalgia, it is potentially perilous. After all, life must be lived forward, not backward. But Anderson certainly knows how to make the backward glance enchanting, and, in prompting us to ask why we abandoned the old ways, he opens up a space for us to reconsider the future.