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.