In Defense of Grand Budapest Hotel and the power of mentors and friends
Theres been much rumbling about the academy awards of late. And most of it is certainly well deserved. While this is the culture industry, the business of showing films is simply a business. Woody Allen famously snubbed the awards, opting to play his clarinet instead of attend, even when he won.
But there's still a lot to think about with today's films. The nominee for best foreign film IDA and for best picture, The Grand Budapest Hotel, bear examining. (I have not seen the others. And Birdman was not as compelling for me).
But there is a great deal to this hyper stylized film, worth reconsidering. A significant story takes place about a countryless refugee, Zero, who later narrates the film, as Mr Moustafa, seeing a place to work at a hotel during a period of war. On a train ride to pay respects to a former lover of his boss, Mr Gustave, the two are shaken down by what look like Nazis, asked for their papers.
Their faces say it all.
Just about to be shot, the two are rescued by a friend of Gustave, who had stayed at the hotel as a child.
And Gustav reflects on the moment.
"You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh, fuck it," Gustave explains to Zero, drinking champagne looking out at the world. Moustafa would have been killed if not for his friend. His soliloquy, words for the ages.
Zero asked Gustave about his fondness for his former lover Mme Celine, who was years older than him.
She was dynamite in the sack, by the way, confesses Gustave.
She was 84, Monsieur Gustave, noted Zero
Mmm, I've had older, Gustave follows, explaining. When you're young, it's all filet steak, but as the years go by, you have to move on to the cheap cuts. Which is fine with me, because I like those. More flavorful, or so they say.
When the two arrive to visit Gustave's now deceased lover. Gustave greets her corpse:
"You're looking so well, darling, you really are... they've done a marvelous job. I don't know what sort of cream they've put on you down at the morgue, but... I want some."
Yet, trouble follows the two as they watch the family of the deceased fight over her last will and testament.
So, they leave. On the train back to the hotel, the two contemplate ducking out and running away. So they make a pact with each other, to stick it out and support each other.
"If I die first, and I almost certainly will, you will be my sole heir," explains Gustave. "There's not much in the kitty, except a set of ivory-backed hairbrushes and my library of romantic poetry, but when the time comes, these will be yours. Along with whatever we haven't already spent on whores and whiskey."
By the time they get back to the hotel, trouble has made its way there.
The beginning of the end of the end of the beginning has begun, notes Gustave taking in the scene. A sad finale played off-key on a broken-down saloon piano in the outskirts of a forgotten ghost town. I'd rather not bear witness to such blasphemy...The Grand Budapest has become a troops' barracks. I shall never cross its threshold again in my lifetime.
Me neither, concurs Zero
Never again shall I...
Actually I think we might be going in there right now after all!
But the two back each other up, supporting their struggles through time, jail, against the Nazis, and eventually the immigration police, the precursors to today's Immigrant Customs Enforcement, who rough up Zero and Gustave again toward the end of the film. Only this time, there was no friend to bail out Gustave. And he is shot outside the train. Somehow, Zero gets away. True to his word, Gustave willed the hotel to Zero, who we later meet at Moustafa.
Mustafa, remembers Gustav fondly.
There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity...he tells an admirer. He was one of them. What more is there to say?.
A film about a struggle to find a sense of self, honor, love, a struggle against time and against fascism, Zero's fight for a place to be as a refugee reminds us of the precarious place we are in today, as workers struggle here, caught in the limbo of our broken immigration system. Budapest hotel is a story for the ages, reminding us of the temporal nature of everything.
To be frank, notes Musta, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it - but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!
A long time activist and social worker, Benjamin Shepard’s scholarship is based on the ethnographic study of social services and social movements. He has worked on campaigns around public space, including community gardens, bike lanes, and public welfare issues ranging from education to AIDS services. For more info or to contact him visit:
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