The summer of 1992, when bread lines wrapped around bakeries; the odor of urine wafted up and down Khrushchev-era apartment block stairwells; and pigs, as though wary of their role in the booming barter economy, grumpily snorted away in urban bathtubs, was my family’s Grand Hotel moment. About a year earlier, Ukraine declared independence, the Soviet Union collapsed, and my father received a commission to create a wall-size stained glass panel for the lobby of my home city’s finest hospitality establishment: the Grand Hotel Lviv.
Behind this eclectic turn-of-the-century façade on Lviv’s main drag, our very own window into the West was taking shape. Its colors would flare up against the sun, spotlighting a bare-bosomed allegory of Galicia—a cross-border region between western Ukraine and eastern Poland and a big piece in the jigsaw puzzle that once was Austria-Hungary. Soon, 15-year-old me reaped the window’s first intangible benefits. At the newly restored hotel’s bookings desk, I sat idle but ever ready to bask in the Austrian tourists’ beguiling auras and absorb their idiom by osmosis. With questionable English and virtually non-existent German, I was a perfect zero to my frequent if unequal conversation partner, the competent maître d’.
This non-experience has made it easy to cast an ironic look at my younger self through the lens of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, in theaters now. After all, the director plots a thorny yet entertaining rags-to-riches-back-to-rags path for his protagonist, Zero Moustafa, also a youngster hired without the requisite credentials at the fictive fine Central European hospitality establishment that gives the film its name. Of course, noblesse oblige: Zero soon picks up hotelier wisdom from the concierge and mentor Gustave H, a man of Mr. Carson’s meticulousness and D’Artagnan’s elegance, wit, and intrepidity.
These days, warnings about the dangers of binge eating and binge watching keep on coming. But few seem concerned with binge news cycles and their side effects.
The film’s release right into the political moment when Russia keeps threatening to smash Ukraine’s real and imagined windows into the West renders such navel-gazing myopic. The unforeseen coincidence between the “Ukraine crisis” and the film’s screen debut lends itself to better uses. The nostalgic dreams that Anderson rouses can provide an antidote against the next foreseeable bout of “Ukraine fatigue.”
But we couldn’t be further from such a thing, you might say. Indeed, at the moment Ukraine has hijacked headlines the world over; it is “everybody’s business.” We are seeing blue and yellow. But that is just how “Ukraine fatigue” starts—with a storm before another lull. Eastern Europe has rarely held the Americans’ attention for long—possibly even less than other world regions on our sidelines. At some point, when the crisis subsides (or, worse, if it extends indefinitely), things will return to normal. In a way, it has already started happening: Progressively, Ukraine is but an excuse for talking about Russia. Demoted to a “buffer state,” it will be nobody’s business soon enough—the 2004 Orange Revolution is proof of that. This pattern is at home in our world of binging and purging.
These days, warnings about the dangers of binge eating and binge watching keep on coming from nutritionists and psychologists. But comparably few seem to be concerned with binge news cycles and their side effects—area fatigue in particular. Every time a crisis erupts, we do not simply get current news and opinion pieces, as one would expect. We have to ingest multiple maps and history quizzes, because we have spent the preceding decade purging rather than engaging with a given part of the world in sustained moderation. In coming up with a more balanced diet, cinema and literature can help. There, the world is constantly, not sporadically, alive. This applies to The Grand Budapest Hotel, with its prospective viewers running in the hundreds of thousands.
SCOURING THE FILM’S GEOGRAPHY for present-day Ukraine would be a vain exercise. The events take place in fictional Zubrowka, Zero’s adopted country, between the early 1930s and ’60s. This nation’s exact location remains deliberately murky, quite in contrast to the clear substance to which its name alludes: Eastern European food aficionados will know Żubrówka as a Polish bison grass vodka (“Żubr” being Polish for “bison”). We are in a state with malleable—not to say liquid—borders that spread easily to include a range of places.
Sizing up the lay of the land, we need not take too many shots to start seeing double. The hotel’s rugged Alpine setting screams Switzerland or Upper Austria, with hints of Arnold Fanck (The Holy Mountain), Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain), and even Brothers Quay (Institute Benjamenta). But the place names transport us to the outskirts of Cisleithania—Austria-Hungary’s northern and eastern expanses reaching into present-day Czech Republic, Slovenia, and, indeed, Ukraine. The quirky make-believe press clippings on the Akademie Zubrowka website, created to promote the film, nail it: Zubrowka is East and West at the same time. Welcome to the land of “Alpine Sudetenwaltz.”
From here on, the film has plenty for those on the lookout for a straightforward cautionary tale with obvious political parallels to Ukraine. Zubrowka’s smudged boundaries make it a resonant “Central European case study of social, political, and cultural upheaval.” Predictably, the surreal Sudetenwaltz whirls straight into a war that delegates Zero to mastermind Zubrowkian resistance. The real-life Sudetenland was interwar Czechoslovakia’s predominantly German-speaking and politically uncooperative rim, annexed by Hitler following the Munich Agreement in September 1938. The region’s resort pearl Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) was not only the German nationalists’ favorite stomping ground but also the home to East Central Europe’s decadent glamor icon, Hotel Pupp—Anderson’s prototype for the Grand Budapest Hotel.
At first blush, Zubrowka’s Czech connection lines up nicely with the numerous recent comparisons between Putin’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea and Hitler’s grab of the Sudetenland. Those in the know will point out yet another red flag: Since the 1990s, the Russians have dominated the streets and real estate market in Karlovy Vary, ensconcing themselves in Hotel Pupp. Is the Grand Hotel Lviv next in line? But, alluring as it is, the straightforward cautionary tale is ultimately both too simplistic and too short-lived to stave off Ukraine fatigue.
Instead, the film taps into something more volatile yet also universal: nostalgia. Despite Anderson’s big-city inspirations (writer Stefan Zweig and filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch among them), his “pastiche” of a country is less imperial center and more periphery. It is less Vienna and more Carlsbad or, perhaps, Lviv. Anderson reminds us that the provinces, too, can have glamor galore. Some will argue that the pearlescent pink-and-turquoise Grand Budapest Hotel borrows more from Vegas than from its historical prototype. Perhaps. But what is Vegas if not a nostalgic dream? And nostalgic dreaming is not always a bad thing, especially when it can serve as an East-West crossing point.
Those who dismiss Grand Budapest Hotel for its lack of authenticity will have to acknowledge that Eastern Europeans, too, have indulged in their fair share of nostalgic dreaming, kitschy at times. Occasionally, these dreams converged on hotels—places of unexpected mobility, physical and social. That was certainly the case in Bohumil Hrabal’s 1971/1983 novel (and Jiří Menzel’s eponymous 2006 film) I Served the King of England. A cult author in Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic, Hrabal plots a thorny yet entertaining rags-to-riches-back-to-rags path for his protagonist Ditě, a puny Prague busboy-turned-hotelier and Zero’s uncannily near-identical twin. Like Zero, Ditě also goes through a war, grapples with Czechoslovakia’s difficult-to-disentangle ethnic mixing, and deals with the communist expropriation of the hotel he had come to own. In between, satirical hotel resident menageries and over-the-top banquet scenes abound. Of course, the shades of Hrabal’s longing differ from Anderson’s. They also differ from the Hapsburg-era pangs that brought Austrian tourists and the 15-year-old me to the bookings desk of the Grand Hotel Lviv that summer in 1992. But if shared gilded-age yearnings can forge new solidarities and gently remind American viewers that Eastern Europe is out there, so be it.