Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel and the Impending Collapse of Industrial Civilization

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I was checking Twitter on the toilet this past Friday evening, when I received confirmation that the world as we know it is ending:

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The news came in the form of a Guardian piece, summarizing a new study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which, using a Human And Nature Dynamical Model (HANDY), found that “global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.” The study concluded that technological progress is unlikely to save us, since historically, new efficiencies in resource use produced by such technologies have also increased per capita resource consumption. Happily, the authors believe collapse can be avoided, so long as the global community can agree that economic growth must be abandoned, and the resources of every nation be “distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.” After taking a moment to articulate my thoughts on this matter…

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…I flushed, and departed for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

[Spoilers, Possibly Overwrought Analysis to Follow]

Wes Anderson sets his eighth feature in 1932, at that eponymous alpine resort, tucked way in the snowcapped mountains of the fictitious, central European nation of Zubrowa.

While the date and location suggest looming geopolitical chaos, within the bright pastel-colored walls of The Grand Budapest, fastidious concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) maintains the height of order and society. Gustave curates his guests’ experience with extraordinary care, exhaustively training his hand-picked staff to provide the highest standard of unobtrusive attentiveness, offering himself as a guide, confidante, and, if one happens to be an elderly female of significant means, a steadfast lover.

Many critics have identified Gustave as the auteur’s stand-in, the analogy between them almost inescapable, as Gustave’s meticulous craft as concierge is rendered through each of the director’s meticulously crafted shots.

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And Anderson’s film evinces a concierge’s concern for maximizing the pleasure of our stay. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most intensely pleasurable film he’s ever made. Here you’ll find no melancholic ruminations on absent fathers or unrequited love. Instead, we are treated to a broadly comic adventure, centered on the relationship between Gustave and his orphaned teenaged Lobby Boy/protégé, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revelore). As played by Fiennes, Gustave is delightful, a perfume addicted, romantic poetry reciting, bi-sexual dandy with a taste for the oldest of ladies, whose absurdly mannered affectations butt-up comically against reality, as when he greets a band of fascist police by offering his hand and saying warmly, “I do believe you are the first of the death squads we’ve chanced to meet.”

The plot centers on the disputed estate of Madamme D (a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s elderly paramours and owner of the Grand Budapest. After dying under mysterious circumstances, D wills to Gustave a priceless painting, thus inspiring her two fascistic sons, played with psychopathic brattiness by Willem Defoe and Adrian Brody, to frame Gustave for their mother’s murder.

Revelore provides Fiennes an able straight man, as the two navigate an art heist, a prison break, a murderous, euro-trash Willem Defoe on a motorcycle, and a stop-motion animated, winter sports-themed chase scene. All this plays out against Anderson’s splendorous mis-en-scene, teeming with visual gags.

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Yet Anderson laces this delicious frivolity with a sorrow appreciable only upon digestion. While the violence and upheavals of the era are kept to the film’s edges, we’re repeatedly asked to gaze out to that horizon.

Late in the film, Zero reveals to Gustave that his entire family was killed in an unspecified conflict. Gustave, and the film’s other principle character, Zeros’ girlfriend Agatha, are likewise bereft of all family, for reasons that remain opaque. We learn in the film’s spiraling epilogue that Gustave dies at the hands of fascist police, and that Zero loses Agatha and their unborn child to a bout of grippe. Thus the space on either side of our jaunty narrative is defined by overwhelming loss.

The story is shadowed not only by the tragedies that precede and follow it, but also by the film’s acknowledgement of its own artifice. We only arrive at the Grand Budapest of Monsieur Gustave, after passing through layers of time and subjectivity.

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The film opens with a teenage girl in the ostensible present, arriving at the memorial bust of a man named “Author,” whose monument is covered in dangling keys. She then opens a copy of a novel titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” thereby sending us to 1985, where this aged author, played by Tom Wilkinson, narrates his experience of writing the book to a television camera, explaining his tale was actually based on the recollections of a man he chanced to meet decades earlier, thus sending us to 1968, where a more youthful author, played by Jude Law, has traveled to Soviet-era Zubrowka, where he’s taken up residence at the now decrepit Grand Budapest, populated sparsely and exclusively, by isolated, world-weary individuals, among them an aged Zero, now the hotel’s owner, and as the two soak in the resort’s grimy baths, the author asks Zero how he came to own the Grand Budapest anyhow, bringing us to the hotel circa 1932, and our feature presentation.

The effect of this telescoping prologue, is to contextualize the world we inhabit for the bulk of the film as a teenage girl’s experience, of a novelistic rendering, of an overheard account, of an old man’s adolescent memories.

Thus the bright world of our farcical adventure has not been lost to time, but rather, created by lost time, through a chain of nostalgic yearning and imagination.

Some of the film’s detractors have faulted Anderson for evading the dark realities of his subject matter, by devoting the bulk of his running time to what Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson describes as “a kitschy adventure story that feels curiously weightless, at times even arbitrary.” He goes on to write that The Grand Budapest Hotel was “finally the film that had me screaming for Wes Anderson to say something. Anything, really.”

I agree with Lawson that the film diverts its attention from the grim realities of Eastern Europe on the eve of fascism, to dwell on a kitschy fantasy. But I think this very will to diversion is the film’s true subject, about which Anderson has much to say.

Like the hotel for which it’s named, Anderson’s film shelters its patrons from geopolitical conflict, within an immaculately circumscribed world of invention. From one angle, the film reads as a defense of creating or occupying such shelters.

In the Grand Budapest of the 60’s, Zero Moustafa has moved back into the claustrophobic servant’s room he occupied as a boy. When the young author asks why he hasn’t sold The Grand Budapest all these years on, Zero replies that he keeps it for his lost wife Agatha, explaining, “We were happy here once.”

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He maintains the Grand Budapest because within the crumbling kitsch of its structure, something of his own ephemeral joy is retained. He goes to bed a make-believe servant, but by indulging this fantasy, he is connected to those parts of his experience that felt most viscerally real.

The world of Anderson’s film is self-consciously fantastical, but it’s connected by a thread of imagination and memory to real human experience. The film is inspired by the writings of the Austrian Jewish author Stefan Zweig, a child of the Viennese aristocracy, who lived through the first world war, and most of the second, before taking his own life in 1942, leaving behind a note, which read in part, “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”

It feels to me that, mediated through time and cinematic tropes, something of a child’s memory of European high-society, and an adult’s mourning for its descent into barbarism, are retained in The Grand Budapest Hotel, just as, within the film’s reality, something of Zero’s love for Agatha is retained through the mediation of time and novelistic tropes, in the readerly imagination of the girl with the bicycle.

If we pan back from our subjective experience, bringing into frame the atrocities of the Syrian civil war, or post-invasion Iraq, if we view our lives in the context of contemporary struggle, or through the ultra-wide shot of geological time, all our most achingly important dramas would appear weightless, arbitrary adventures.

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In evoking a period of mass suffering, but telling a broadly comic adventure story, in gesturing to the tragic episodes of its characters’ lives, but focusing on a joyful one, Anderson’s film argues that the bleakest aspects of the human condition don’t delegitimize its pleasures, that however fleeting or myopic, the experience of joy is life’s greatest consolation. The film is thus an argument for itself, for the redemptive power of artificial worlds, whose bright colors, playful wit, and elegiac nostalgia recall and revive our lost joys, reminding us we were happy here, once.

I left the theater thoroughly persuaded, smiling my way onto 23rd street, where I revived my iPhone, and found this reply from the friend who, earlier in the night, had directed me to NASA’s catastrophic report:

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Sometime later, maybe on the subway back, I began to see ambivalence in the film’s self-endorsement.

The Grand Budapest Hotel’s main storyline is introduced when young Zero looks down on a morning newspaper, eyes suddenly bulging. He races through the city streets and the Grand Budapest’s elaborate geography, to wake Gustave, himself exhausted from a long night of geriatric fornication. When Zero hands over the paper, the camera swoops down onto the headline, which announces the declaration of war. Gustave gasps, and the camera pans down the page, to Madamme D’s death notice, revealing the true source of our characters’ concern.

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This is one of many instances in which humor is mined from our heroes’ myopia, and I wondered if the sum total of such moments suggested the film meant to deprecate its own point-of-view.

It struck me that choosing to defy forces of destruction, by insisting on the supreme value of nostalgic fantasy, can only be virtuous if you are helpless against such forces. It seems existentially brave to insist on the significance of our fleeting pleasures against the march of time, but perhaps less so against the march of Nazis.

Anderson puts away the pastels for Gustave’s final scene, dressing 1930’s Europe in the black-and-white we’re used to. Early in the film, as Gustave and Zero make their way to the reading of Madamme D’s will, their train is stopped by fascist police, who attempt to arrest Zero for his lack of documentation. They are saved by the intervention of a friendly fascist played by Ed Norton, who recognizes Gustave as the kindly concierge he knew as a child. This later black-and-white scene mirrors the earlier one almost exactly, only now, when Gustave cheerfully introduces himself to the death squads, his meticulous oversight of The Grand Budapest does not keep the officers from beating him and seizing Zero. The epilogue implies that it was shortly after this incident, that police shot Gustave dead.

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Is Anderson suggesting that, had Gustave focused on that top headline, had he treated the threat of fascism with the seriousness it deserves, his untimely death might have been prevented?

And if Gustave is Anderson’s stand-in, does that make his audience the hotel’s idle aristocrats, luxuriating in the pleasures of his living doll-house, while armies gather at their borders, or dire climate reports cycle through their Facebook feeds?

In likening his artistic project to a concierge’s accommodation of the decadent rich, is Anderson subtly indicting himself and his viewers?

Ultimately, I decided these anxieties were likely my own projections. Whatever dissonant chords it strikes, the dominant note of Anderson’s film is still one of joy undercut by a sadness more stoic than guilty.

But I find its veneration of frivolity in the face of disaster, to be itself far from frivolous. For it constitutes a message, about the consolations of nostalgic fantasy, that feels perfectly apt for our moment, so long as we accept we’re already beyond saving.

On the Equation of Anti-Zionism with Anti-Semitism


A phantom Spring has come to New York, turning filth-crusted snowbanks into shimmering puddles, the seasonally disaffected into joggers. What better time then to pull down the shades and argue about Israel?

A couple days ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted the above video of Breitbart heir and all-around dickhead Ben Shapiro, venting righteous indignation at UCLA, for its consideration of a student-backed petition calling on the University to divest from companies that “contribute to violations of Palestinian rights and international law.”

In arguing against divestment, Shapiro does not engage with concerns about the occupation of the West Bank. He does not argue specifically why he sees divestment from companies affiliated with Israel as an ethically or strategically misguided action for those concerned about Palestinian justice.

He doesn’t need to defend occupation or propose alternative methods for redressing its harms, because he recognizes that BDS has nothing to do with Palestinian oppression. In his view, none of those students affiliated with the movement are motivated by a sincere empathic concern for the occupied, whose suffering merely provides them a convenient front through which to exercise their “age old hatred of the Jewish people.”

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Shapiro is a butcher by trade, doling out red meat to reactionary white men, who need to be affirmed in  their terror of black kids,  or disgust at money grubbing sluts. And so refuting his argument on the Israel/Palestine debate might seem like a waste of time.

But I’m compelled to do so anyhow for a few reasons:

  1. I think the way his highly shareable burst of rhetoric bites off all substantive questions about the Occupation and BDS, through an appeal to anti-Semitism, is indicative of the way right-wing Zionists attempt to police discourse on Israel more broadly. And I think this reliance on the illogical equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism betrays the profound ethical questions that liberal Zionists must grapple with.
  2. Shapiro’s rant had wide enough resonance that my ostensibly liberal Facebook friend, who I don’t know especially well, but who seems to me a perfectly lovely individual, felt compelled to share it, as she felt it did an excellent job exposing the “hateful aims” of the BDS movement.
  3. It seems like a decent opportunity to formally express my thoughts on Israel, and solicit those of more well-informed friends.

So then.

Shapiro’s argument for why BDS is a movement of/by/for Jew haters has two main parts.

First, he employs the fundamentally flawed selectivity argument: He reasons that there is no explanation other than anti-Semitism, for why students would be attempting to boycott Israel and not Iran or Saudi Arabia, or any of the other undemocratic middle-eastern states with abhorrent records on human rights:

“To pretend this is about occupation, to pretend this is about peace, to pretend this is about anything but vile and despicable Jew hatred is a lie. There is only one reason we are discussing Israel and not discussing Saudi Arabia, there is only one reason we are discussing Israel and not discussing Iran, there is only one reason we are discussing Israel and not discussing Palestine…”

Shapiro’s argument seems pretty lacking in imagination. Is it not possible that some of the members of BDS are more concerned about Israel’s human rights record rather than Saudi Arabia’s because, I don’t know, they might be themselves Palestinian?

Is it not permissible to be more concerned by violations of international law that effect your own friends and family than those that do not? The logic here is that, regardless of personal investment, to condemn a party for a crime that other parties have committed more severely, is to betray an irrational hatred of said party. So that in condemning the anti-semitism of UCLA and not the Westborough Baptist Church, Shapiro is revealing his age-old anti-Bruinism.

Then there’s another group that may have an understandable preoccupation with Israel’s human rights record: Jews. And not just us secular humanist sodomites either.

It is not anti-Semitic self-hatred that makes me especially sensitive to the crimes of the Israeli state. Rather, it is the sense of profane betrayal that they induce.

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The Holocaust thinned the ranks around my family’s Thanksgiving table. My grandmother’s father, mother, sister, and brother were all murdered when she was 10 years old.

That tragedy shadowed my childhood from an impossible distance, testifying to a precarity of human civilization and experience that everything else in a mid-90’s Connecticut suburb seemed to deny. But then, in moments, this unfathomable contradiction would become startlingly proximate, in my grandmother’s person, in the fever-pitch of my mother’s inherited anxiety.

In this way, The Holocaust was synonymous with death itself, a world-destroying fact which didn’t exist outside scattered moments of intuition. And as with death, there could be no durable life philosophy or system of meaning that didn’t confront it as a central problem.

I was raised to know Israelis as my brethren, Palestinians as terrorists, who would refuse any peace agreement that didn’t allow them to march all the Jews into unparting seas.

I was told the mainstream media was hatefully biased against the state of Israel, crowing over losses of Palestinian life without providing the context of their aggression.

I remember being 10 or 11, and seeing Bill O’Reilly devote his Talking Points Memo to the supremacy of Israeli culture and the obscenity of media bias against it, and running into my mother’s bedroom, to euphorically shout that someone was finally telling the truth on TV.

I was also instructed in the humanitarian universalist understanding of the Holocaust, in Never Again to anyone, in the toxic evil of all prejudice. A northern school system’s emphasis on American slavery in both history and literature classes, reinforced the notion that genocidal discrimination was not a strictly Hebraic phenomenon.

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And I was taught to fear most the banality of hatred, the complacency of all those good Germans.

Then I came of age in Bush’s America, came into a political awareness capable of identifying propaganda in mainstream narratives, and found voices on the left that made sense of our leaders’ duplicitous contempt for democracy, their apparent indifference to the human consequences of their ideological commitments.

What a thing then to discover that all these people who were right about Iraq, were also terrorist-loving anti-Semites.

To recognize the reality of Israeli occupation and apartheid was to see embodied in the loving bond of my Jewish family and community the very evil they were supposed to exist in defiance of. It was to recognize in attenuated form, the willful blindness of the good German in my own mother.

All of which is to say, that the selective concern with Israel among some Jews involved in social justice does not require an appeal to the learned self-loathing of an out-group. Rather, that selective concern is the product of a competing understanding of how to affirm the Holocaust memory through ethical living.

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As Ella Illouz wrote in Haaretz in February:

“If Israel is indeed singled out among the many nations that have a bad record in human rights, it is because of the personal sense of shame and embarrassment that a large number of Jews in the Western world feel toward a state that, by its policies and ethos, does not represent them anymore.”

Illouz asserts that the divide in the Jewish community on Israel is fundamentally a moral one. In glib summary:

One side believes the Holocaust teaches that the world will always regard us first and foremost as Jews, and we must therefore hold our Jewishness as our primary identity. As a uniquely victimized group in world history, we are entitled to the protection of a state by and for our ethnic/religious group, and are entitled to the acts of violence all states must necessarily undertake to secure their sovereignty.

The other side believes the Holocaust teaches that the idea of a chosen people is a deadly lie. We are all first and foremost human, no matter the unique and beautiful culture accidents of history and geography have gifted us. As the arbitrary survivors of a uniquely victimized group, we are obligated to oppose the victimization of any group on the basis of their religious or ethnic identity.

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Shapiro preempts the airing of this moral debate, by enforcing the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. His final argument for why the claims of BDS must be met with the same tolerance and intellectual curiosity as those of the Hitler youth, is that none of those pushing for BDS are willing to recognize a Jewish state qua Jewish state.

Here his argument has a modicum of legitimacy. UCLA’s BDS does call for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, which would effectively be the end of Israel as a specifically Jewish state.

But again, what’s missing here is a warrant for the claim that wishing to prioritize the rights of the ethnically cleansed, over the maintenance of a Jewish state, can only be the product of anti-Semitism.

It is a historical fact, affirmed even in the writings of avowedly Zionist historians like Benny Morris, that up to 700,000 Palestinian families were forced from their homes in 1948 by the Israeli military. Their expulsion was necessary to make possible the demographic majority a democratic Zionist state required to exist.

When this truth is recognized, it seems to me it is not supporters of the right to return who must contend with charges of callousness based on ethnic animosity, but rather those who oppose that right.

To my liberal Zionist friends I ask: Is there any ethical case that can be made for denying refugees the right of return, that does not privilege Jewish life above Palestinian?

To me, the best case for the Jewish state is a negative one: That this ethnocracy maintained by violence is an unfortunate necessity, because a secular state inhabited by Israelis and Palestinians as equal citizens would produce perpetual civil war akin to the sectarian conflicts in other parts of the region.

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To my one-state supporting friends I ask: What is the best argument against this being true?

It does strike me that, to an extent, principles are a privilege. When my father’s family fled the indignities of the shtetl, my mother’s the anti-Semitism of Soviet Poland, they could have easily opted or Tel Aviv instead of Manhattan.

Whatever secular humanist commitments I profess, there is no question that my actions affirm a preference for the well-being of myself and those I love over that of unknown others.

Because of our shared history of oppression, because if not for recent quirks of history, I’d have been born among them, do I owe Israeli Jews the ethics-obliterating love of family?

Or must I remember that if you follow the blood-line further back, you’ll find as arbitrary a fork in history, where but for the grace of god or entropy, I’d now be a malnourished child of Gaza?

I am certain there is nothing hateful about answering the latter. And that there is nothing anti-Semitic about pursuing non-violent action to force Israeli compliance with international law.

And I am certain that the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is rhetoric fit for a Fascist, who invites us to look away from any question that might threaten the lie that sustains his violence and our identity.