Like so many others, I spent last month’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in remembrance of the Holocaust. I quietly contemplated the past, thought about family members who had survived, and those who had perished, attended a commemorative ceremony, said Kaddish, and shed some tears. And then I watched a comedy—Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is nominated for nine Academy Awards at this Sunday's ceremony.
How can comedy ever be appropriate when it comes to remembering such solemn events? I first asked that question about the film three years ago, before it was even made. At the time I was the U.S. Ambassador in Prague, and the filmmakers reached out to say that they were researching a movie set in the fictional land of Zubrowka (a stand in for the Czech lands) during the 1930s, concluding in 1938 and told in flashback from 1968 (two very bleak years in Czech history, marking the Nazi and the Soviet invasions). Would I help?
As the child of a Czech survivor of Auschwitz who later fled the Communists, I was dubious. But when I sat with the director, Wes Anderson, and heard his vision, I immediately went from skeptic to champion for the same reason I turned to the film again last month: It’s one of the smartest and most sophisticated movies ever made about both the causes of the Holocaust and its consequences.
First, its characters are a warm tribute to the three main populations targeted by the Nazis. M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hero of the film and the head concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, is openly bisexual (thousands of men arrested after being condemned as homosexuals were estimated to have died in concentration camps). His sidekick, the young lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), is a refugee whose family was slaughtered in their village, standing in for the Roma and other “non-Aryan” ethnic minorities the Holocaust also targeted. The two men are aided throughout by a Jewish lawyer, Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum).
Second, the film focuses on the Nazis’ motivations, a poisonous cocktail of bias, greed, and disdain for law. Dmitri (Adrien Brody), the leader of an SS-like organization (the “ZZ”) engages in a madcap pursuit of the heroes all over Zubrowka, attempting to seize a valuable painting from them illegally, assaulting the rule of law and, eventually, Kovacs.
Third and most important, the film’s use of comedy turns out to offer a fresh way to talk about the run-up to World War II and the Communist era that followed. So much has already been said about those eras, and properly so. But with the passing of the generation of the eyewitnesses, and the advent of new generations with their own sensibilities, how do we continue the conversation? The film succeeded at doing that through a comic lens—the very thing that initially troubled me.
Talking about the most serious subjects with the help of comedy is a long European tradition running from Aristophanes to Voltaire to Jonathan Swift to Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose works were a principal influence of the film. That tradition was particularly strong in the real-life Zubrowka, Czechoslovakia, where Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik sent up militarism, Franz Kafka’s novels and stories mocked bureaucracy, and Havel’s comic plays helped bring down Communism.
These artists recognized that profound issues deserve to be looked at through every single human lens, and no issue is perhaps more profound than the Holocaust, its causes and consequences. The Grand Budapest Hotel also joins a film tradition that tackles this era through humor, including Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1941, nominated for five Oscars), Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942, one Oscar nomination), and Life Is Beautiful (1997-98, four Oscars, eight nominations). There have also been some spectacular failures in this regard, including Robin Williams’ Jakob the Liar, set in a ghetto, and most notoriously, Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried, a film that was apparently so bad it was never released.
Wisely, Anderson avoided the war itself and its mass murder, setting his film in the period before and after instead. Which is decent: There are places that comedy, as important as it is, should hesitate to tread, and the inside of a concentration camp is surely first among them. (Life Is Beautiful being the exception that proves the rule.) That approach is not only fitting, but also opens a door for viewers who might otherwise hesitate to encounter that whole painful era. To be sure, the period also needs to continue to be addressed head on. But hundreds of thousands of people who might otherwise shy away saw this movie, and took away its important lessons about tolerance, governance, and the rule of law. That matters.
A similar subtlety also characterizes the film’s musings about memory and its transmission. Zero flashes back to the 1930s from the vantage point of his 1968 conversation with a writer he meets. But the 1968 meeting is itself a flashback—it's introduced and concluded by the writer, years later, looking at the camera and describing his recollections of the meeting. And that too is a flashback: The movie opens and closes with a student seated before the writer’s memorial bust in the Prague Jewish cemetery reading those very recollections in the writer’s book, The Grand Budapest Hotel. In a month when we all thought a lot about preserving history, that rendering of how stories are passed down resonated deeply.
Finally, the film speaks to our heartbreak at the injustice of the Holocaust and our desire for some glimmer of light—but not too much. The laughs are wrapped in melancholy, including the onset of war and death in 1938, the wistful reminiscences of Zero from a sad 1968, and finally, a memorial in a graveyard. As M. Gustave says, “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” The Grand Budapest Hotel got that just right too, and that’s no laughing matter.