I am in a rapture at having seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie by Wes Anderson.
It is a master work: a suspenseful story, artfully told, and also a brilliant exposition of the difference between high civilization and the depths of human depravity and how the two are constantly wrestling for the human soul.
Like the tides of the oceans, human society rhythmically rises (Periclean Athens, Republican Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Germany in the early 20th century), and falls (Imperial Rome, the Middle Ages, 20th century fascism in Europe, Russia, and Japan).
These forces exist also in each one of us: the good, and the bad, swirling around all the time. Life is about leaning in one direction or the other, and from this collective leaning, civilization is made or destroyed.
Wes Answerson, who wrote and directed The Grand Budapest Hotel, has given us the joy of a main character — Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes — who is the personification of civilization, and what a beautiful personification it is.
This is for many reasons, including that he exhibits and practices a code of living based on uncompromisingly high standards of excellence, courtesy, manners, higher learning, joie de vivre, love, loyalty, grace under pressure, and courage in the face of direct and indirect challenges to all these qualities. And this is the genius of the film: Gustave is not just cultured, he is severely, brutally tested by the dark forces within all human beings, including himself. And he triumphs, and I love a happy ending. His is a hero’s journey, as Joseph Campbell wrote about definitively (if you have not read The Hero With A Thousand Faces, you must do so immediately, or at least start with his interviews with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth).
In the hero’s journey, a person is cast out of his comfort zone (voluntarily or by force or trickery) and into a series of trials. He faces the trials as best he can, and eventually returns to his starting point, hopefully intact and with higher consciousness, but not necessarily so.
Gustave’s journey in this movie is a perfect model of this archetype, and perhaps Wes Anderson created him with this intention. Screenwriters are generally aware of these archetypes and you’ll find them in just about every movie that gets made, but the genius of Anderson’s artistry is how well he did it here. The lesson is quite clear, but not so much that you can’t be swept away by the madcap events of the story.
I will also admit to loving this movie as well for the way it speaks to our present moment in the United States and the world. In 2014 we find our civilization under daily assault and our humanity being tested sorely. And we are losing.
But back to this wonderful piece of art.
Gustave’s Bona Fides
Gustave is, as the narrator says towards the end, “civilization itself”. Anderson reinforces this in the character in so many ways, including giving him the attributes mentioned above.
But also in some other key ways, such as Gustave’s refusal to be a victim during his jail time. He fights, gets beaten up, but gives as much as he gets; he is such a long way from life in his beloved hotel, and yet his spirit is unbowed and he never loses or surrenders his agency.
He continuously displays courtesy and manners even in the face of openly hostile people (or people who only appeared to be hostile, but then turned out to be allies when he needed them the most) and in the most abhorrent situations, such as after he emerges from a sewer through which he escaped from the jail.
He is willing to put himself in harm’s way to protect his vulnerable charge, Zero (the lobby boy).
And he is also capable of weak moments and apologizing when appropriate. In a key exchange, he verbally abuses Zero, clearly as a result of his own exhaustion and suffering at that point in the story. But when Zero stands up for himself, Gustave realizes his error and apologizes in a heart-felt manner. I found this to be very important for the character: no one is perfect, and indeed Civilization is not perfect. But which way does a man lean? Towards cruelty, or towards compassion and human connection?
The Decline of Civilization
I absolutely love the way The Grand Budapest Hotel portrays the decline of civilization (the era depicted, a facsimile of 1930s Europe during the rise of Hitler, could stand in for aspects of our present moment). Anderson conveys the decline by using the same motif twice: our main characters, Gustave and Zero, are traveling together in a rail car through the beautiful countryside of Europe, and each time they are subjected to a harsh interrogation by hyper-aggressive law enforcement / military figures who board the train to check passports.
In both cases, Zero does not have proper papers, and this provokes actual physical violence against him and Gustave (after Gustave, out of loyalty to his companion and with no hope of overpowering the adversaries, attempts to intervene).
But in the first instance, the police chief, also on the train, catches up with the commotion and calls off his dogs: he knows Gustave, and such sadistic and impersonal treatment will not do. The opposite of bureaucracy, in other words.
The second instance takes place much later in the story, and plays out very differently <spoiler alert again>. We see Zero knocked unconscious by the butt-end of a rifle, and later learn that Gustave is shot and killed in the aftermath of the episode.
In these two renditions of the motif, we see the same high culture (Gustave demonstrating loyalty and courage against sadistic, violent men and overwhelmingly bad odds), but not the same outcome because something crucial is missing the second time around. The police chief and his human connection to a particular citizen are gone, and the result is a spasm of violence and the senseless death of a beloved man.
This is why central governments, manned by armies of bureaucrats, are dangerous: there is no humanity in them, and without humanity, the raw struggle for survival is all that is left (the kill-or-be-killed nature of the animal world).
Joseph Campbell called it “the end of life and the beginning of survival” (he was quoting a great Indian chief, who was cautioning against abandonment of spirituality).
This is a way of saying that human life is not life unless it includes love and compassion (unity) and transcends the animal world of eating, fighting, and fucking (survival). The zero-sum game of survival is truly hell on earth.
The Rule of Law
And while we are on the topic of the Decline of Civilization, would you believe that a Hollywood filmmaker could make one of the most powerful cases for the Rule of Law that any of us has seen in recent years?
Well believe it, because one of the most powerful narrative arcs in the movie (for me anyway) is that of the attorney, played by Jeff Goldblum.
An extraordinarily rich woman has died (or was murdered, apparently), and her will must be administered — no easy job with dozens of hungry relatives circling like vultures throughout the proceedings. This falls to the attorney, and just look at the way Anderson presents him in the above picture.
Three piece suit. Surrounded by hundreds of books. A thorough and exhaustive reading of hundreds of documents to sort out the estate. These are not mere props, as the man’s conduct and character match his surroundings. This is a man who has respect for due process, for hard work, for not taking short cuts, even under pressure.
And oh, does he get pressure. The most aggressive would-be heir, played by Adrian Brody, challenges him in a fundamental way by asking him the question “Aren’t you supposed to be representing US?” To which he responds, “…actually no, strictly speaking I represent the deceased…” (or words to that effect). An attorney must always remember who his client is, and this one does very clearly, and the answer is not at all what the bully wants to hear.
And so he escalates his bullying and demands that the attorney bend the rules. His reply to the demand is simple and straight forward: No, I cannot do that. I am an attorney and I must follow the law.
This is civilization. This is what keeps societies from destroying themselves in an orgy of street violence.
The Goldblum character is a beautiful rendition of it, and Anderson then shows just what is at stake in today’s American culture: the attorney is stalked by Jopling, a murderous thug played by Willem Defoe, and flees into a museum (I’m sure this was no accident, as a museum is another institution of culture and learning). Jopling murders him in cold blood inside the museum, and it is no leap to say that Jopling’s character and those of his ilk (might makes right) represent the murder of culture as much as the murder of the man.
Anderson is saying that the Rule of Law is important, but that it is also vulnerable (the attorney’s persian cat is another nice touch — the law is strong, but delicate). Without it, civilization cannot survive.
Again I will admit that this hits home for me, as I watch our country get dragged down a path of selective enforcement of the laws (or none at all in some cases) by a president who does not respect the law of this land. Or rather it would be more correct to say that he respects the laws he likes, and ignores or tramples on the laws that he does not like. His actions bludgeon the foundation of our civilization.
Gustave’s journey begins at the hotel, where he is happy and fulfilled in his role as Concierge extraordinaire, and then moves into his trials, including a violent stint in jail, an audacious escape, a confrontation with Jopling in which he and Zero are the improbably brave pursuers and in which he faces death and recites poetry before he makes it through to safety, and a successful trial that allows him the inheritance, and then back to the hotel where his joie de vivre may flourish again (the hero’s return).
Watching the complete cycle was thrilling and a joy.
And the movie is important.
As I debate various members of my family about the increasing consolidation of central power by our government and the terrible consequences of it that we are already experiencing every day, I am constantly met with a kind of mushy indifference (“all presidents do this stuff”, etc etc).
All I can say is that humanity has spent many more years living under tyranny than freedom, making the pull towards survival relatively more powerful (and the sadism and cruelty that come with it).
Luckily for us, our American Experiment has blessed us in this lifetime with a truly glorious era.
But we are losing it.
To my Liberal friends I say: if you don’t want the butt of a rifle smashing into your foreheads, open your eyes to the men and women, including Barack Obama, who would gladly put all our necks into so many yokes.