By Diana Cheng
The Grand Budapest Hotel won four Oscars at the 87th Academy Awards this February. At the end of the film, leading the credits, is the acknowledgement of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) whose writings inspired the production. During interviews, director Wes Anderson joked that he ‘stole’ from the Austrian writer: ‘It’s basically plagiarism’, he said. Anderson is all modesty when making such a remark, for the film has his own signature style. Unlike Zweig’s more serious and darker hue, Anderson has created a colourful fantasy. Rather than an imitation, the film should be regarded as a worthy homage to an author who has been noted as one of the most translated German-language writers during the 1930’s. (More info here).
Anderson came across Zweig by chance when he purchased his 1939 novel Beware of Pity in a Paris bookstore. After two pages, he knew he had discovered a new favorite author. Twenty pages later, he wanted to adapt it into film. Then he read some more Zweig’s works and liked them all. So he made a peculiar endeavour: he transposed the author’s oeuvre, his life and spirit into his own re-imagining, creating a film that eventually would catapult him to the zenith of acclamation. The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated for nine Oscars at the 2015 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Directing, and Best Original Screenplay for Anderson himself. Albeit not winning these major categories, the film did capture four wins in Original Score, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling. The triumph is shared by the late Zweig, for he has now been introduced to many more readers, especially those of us in North America. New York Review Books has seen Zweig’s popularity rise after the movie, but it is UK’s Pushkin Press that holds the banner of a ‘Zweig revival’ by republishing many of his works in English translation.
Zweig was born 1881 in Vienna to a Jewish family who circulated freely in the upper crust of Austro-Hungarian society. He was versatile and prolific as a poet, translator, biographer, essayist, lyricist short story writer and novelist. His literary achievement was prodigious. At nineteen, Zweig saw his first publication, a collection of poetry by the respectable publisher Schuster & Löffler. Upon this debut on the literary stage, Zweig was ecstatic to receive a gift from his idol, Rilke, who had read the youngster’s work and sent him a special edition of his own poetry with the inscription addressed to Zweig: ‘with thanks’. Later, still at the tender age of nineteen, Zweig saw his essays published in the feuilleton, or literary supplement, of Vienna’s prestigious newspaper the Neue Freie Presse, sharing the pages with such formidable literary figures as Ibsen, Zola, Strindberg and Shaw.
Readers can find his excitement in recalling these unexpected early successes in his autobiography The World of Yesterday. It was not so much about fame but identity. The glorious world of yesterday included not only the fulfilled dream of a young man, but that of the Jewish people in finding a homeland, free and secure in Vienna. At long last, they could taste the reality of belonging. Jews in Vienna had become respectable, contributing members of society, particularly in the realms of the arts and culture.
As we can see from history, such a triumph would soon be obliterated. In August 1914, Zweig saw the world order and security that he so cherished and thrived on crumble as WWI broke out. If that was the beginning of the end, Nazism in the 1930s rang in the death toll. Zweig had to escape to England, later to the United States, and finally landed in Brazil. Exiled and alienated, the Austrian writer was overwhelmed by despair as he saw his homeland and Europe devoured by Hitler. The German language he was born into and had so aptly used in his literary success he now had to apologize for. Such devastation and emptiness was too much to bear. In 1942, just a few days after he sent off his last book, Chess Story, to his American publisher, Zweig and his second wife committed suicide together in Petrópolis, Brazil.
Wes Anderson recreated Zweig’s pre-war world in his fictional Republic of Zubrowka, with The Grand Budapest Hotel itself as a metaphor of that secured microcosm, everything running smoothly under the supervision of the concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), at least in the first half of the film. The boxy Academy Ratio we see on screen evokes the idea of looking into an old photo album in all its nostalgic charm. The exile life of a genocide survivor we can find in Zero the lobby boy (Tony Revolori young, F. Murray Abraham older).
Richard Brody in his New Yorker article “Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson, And a Longing for the Past” writes that Zweig himself had experienced the ‘practical difficulties’ and ‘psychological trauma’ of having lost his passport while on the run. The passport, Brody notes, ‘wasn’t even a commonplace document before the First World War’. Without it, one was instantly turned into an outlaw. Zero has M. Gustave to thank for standing up for him twice while travelling on the train without transit papers. The first time, Officer Henckels (Edward Norton) recognizes M. Gustave, his parents’ friend, and remembers his kindness to him when he was a boy; human relations win over and Zero is spared. Unfortunately, luck runs out for M. Gustave the second time, all because of the change in military control, a symbolic reference to the iron fist of the Nazi regime. No societal ties or achievements could save Zweig or the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.
The following are two titles to which Anderson had made specific reference – Zweig’s only novel Beware of Pity and his novella The Post-Office Girl. The third is Anderson’s own selections, an excellent sampler of Zweig’s works, The Society of the Crossed Keys.
Zweig likes to nest stories within stories. Often, the author does not need to go seek his subject matter, for people come to him to reveal long held secrets and incredulous tales. The first few pages of the book display such a storytelling design, while just a few minutes into Anderson’s film, we see the whole nesting parallel. The author (Tom Wilkinson as the older author), retelling the story of his youth, (played by Jude Law), who was approached by Mr. Moustafa to share his life story.
Other elements from the novel such as the setting, the grand mansion of Princess Orosvar’s Schloss Kekesfalva, could have led to the visual image of Madame D.’s (Tilda Swinton) Schloss Lutz in the movie. The greedy descendents converging to get a share of the inheritance is quite like events in the book as well; and none of the fortune would fall into any of their hands, but its entirety would go to the maid Fräulein Dietzenhof, and yes, to M. Gustave the concierge in the movie.
Anderson needs not worry about plagiarism other than these parallels, plus some gorgeous European vistas as described by Zweig. The book actually is a serious study of pity, a subject that is quite unique. Like quicksand, guilt and pity can pull one down into inescapable entwinement. Here is a story about a young Austrian Calvary officer paying a hefty price for a simple misunderstanding. Invited into the grand mansion of the Kekesfalva for a dinner, he had asked the young heiress to a dance, unaware that she was a cripple, thus provoking a great emotional outburst from the girl. To make up for his error, he sent flowers and offered his apology the next day and thus began his fall down a rabbit hole of entanglement, drawing him into the internal battlefield of conscience and guilt.
Zweig’s admiration for his contemporary, Freud, can be seen in the detailed psychological depiction of the characters. The story idea is original, the descriptions engrossing. It is interesting to note that, unlike Zweig’s novel, what Anderson has crafted is a light and comedic production. The Grand Budapest Hotel has Anderson’s signature quirkiness and styling all over it. He has used the raw ingredients and cooked up a very different cuisine that is equally delicious in its own way.
Christine works in a small town post-office, modest and contented in her minimal existence. One day, she receives an invitation from her American aunt who has just travelled to Switzerland with her husband, to stay with them in their luxury hotel for a little vacation. Christine’s life is forever changed. Despite the abrupt termination of that fateful vacation, Christine comes home with restlessness and unquenchable desires. Anderson admitted that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a visualization of that luxury Swiss hotel described in Zweig’s novella. What caught my attention is not only the author’s nuanced depiction of the inner world of his characters, but his detailing of the outer landscape as well. One passage is particularly mesmerizing. As Christine goes out to the balcony of her hotel room and sees the ‘dramatic transition, the vast unfolding palette’ at dusk, that whole page of word painting could well have inspired the film’s colourful cinematic rendering.
The director’s homage to Zweig does not end with the film. Collaborating with Pushkin Press, Anderson has selected excerpts from Zweig’s works that inspired the movie. Entitled The Society of the Crossed Keys, the name comes from the fictional guild of hotel concierges in the film, yes, an idea that is purely Anderson’s. This excellent sampler begins with a conversation between the filmmaker and Zweig’s biographer George Prochnick, (The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World came out in May 2014 from Other Press), followed by chapters from Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday and his novel Beware of Pity, wrapping up with the full short story ‘Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman’. This short story is a must-read for those looking for a quick taste of Zweig’s style and talent.
‘From Z to A’: that’s how Zero signed his inscription in the book of poetry he gives to Agatha his love. Anderson can now sign off this amazing chapter of his career with admiration and homage: ‘From A to Z’.
Diana Cheng’s alter ego is Arti of the blog Ripple Effects.