Cute Nihilism: on The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man niedlich.

There have been a number of critiques that have come out regarding Wes Anderson’s most recent feature The Grand Budapest Hotel (due for wide release on Friday). It has been noted as overly twee, lacking in substance, lacking in emotional gravitas. Perhaps these arguments have merit. And I would not argue that one must love this film. But I find all of what has been pointed out in the film as troubling (and has led to notations of previous Anderson works) to be, in fact, what endears the film to me all the more.

While I would not go so far as to claim that the film itself makes explicit claims towards or officially espouses, I would argue that there is a certain undercurrent of nihilism in this text. Before one sees this as a critique, which I certainly do not mean it as, I should clarify. This film (and much of Anderson’s oeuvre in general) is a film of surfaces and failures. It is presented as a nesting set of stories – a film about a book based on a recounting of a story of a caper. Each of these frames are presented with expected Anderson elegance and charm (as has been recounted at length elsewhere). But each of these frames recount a failure (both personal and societal). The central tale (that of M. Gustave and Zero) takes place during the failure to prevent fascism and it’s destruction of the (never having actually existed) good ol’ days marked as well by the failures of love and interpersonal connection and the frailty of life. The frame of the recounting marks the failure of ’68, the breakdown of society, and the desolation of the individual. The frame of the author is set during the failure of the Reagan/Thatcher era where the author notes the failure of mastery (tales do not spring fully formed from the head of the Author). And the final frame, set in some ambiguous present, is marked as we give over the keys to our kingdoms at a monument to the Death of the Author. Indeed, the is a film of failures. These failures are presented but only lightly critiqued. It is noted that love cannot be spoken of (lest it bring forth a depth of emotion the film is unprepared to handle). And thus they are surfaces, beautiful backdrops and set pieces upon which we imagine and relive our failures but now as farce, now for laughs. We cannot help but fail, but continue. At least we should look good while doing it. The best lack all conviction, but we are much better dressed. A film about failure though, should not be considered itself a failure. Just because many critics were looking/hoping for there to be a reality behind the mask does not change that it is turtles all the way down.

This film is also a film of inheritance. It is much noted that Anderson is a filmmaker who has inherited much from film history. But the central driving action of The Grand Budapest Hotel, is, in fact, inheritance. The central story is of dual inheritance, dueling inheritance. The novel is an inherited story, the monument to the Author our collective inheritance. But what is it that we, the audience inherit from this film, this flat circle? Could it not be the knowledge that there is only surface?

The one you search for is not here, this tomb is empty.

We are everywhere lacking in substance, The Grand Budapest Hotel simply does not to try to hide it. Perhaps we should feel shame or loss at our inability to express our abyssal nature, the empty insignificance of it all. But I feel nothing of the sort. The insignificance is freeing, the vastness comforting, and Anderson keeps everything looking so very nice. Certainly death is trivialized. Love as well, though less so. But humanity is trivial. Why run or hide from this truth? Why deny the existential reality of our vast cosmic irrelevance? After all, these are only characters, rendered comically for our amusement and entertainment. Why search for meaning and gravitas on the screen when we so routinely fail to create it in our very lives?