Models, maps, plans, elevations, sections – Wes Anderson, the director of new film The Grand Budapest Hotel is easily the most architectural film-maker out there, says film critic Steve Rose
No one who has seen a Wes Anderson movie will be surprised to learn he once wanted to be an architect. Viewers might balk at his fanciful, lightweight, deadpan, quirk-friendly narratives, but few would deny that the Texan auteur has great style. Over the course of his eight features, Anderson has marked himself out as a man with a cultivated design sensibility via his harmonious colour palettes, his consistent typography (until recently, it was always Futura), his keen fashion sense (he commissioned bespoke Adidas trainers for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Louis Vuitton luggage for The Darjeeling Limited) and his general love of pop-cultural design ephemera – portable record players, cameras, TVs, old-school computers. He is a poster boy for the Pinterest/Etsy/Ebay era.
But beyond all that, Anderson is easily the most architectural film-maker out there. Virtually all his films revolve around a single, hermetic, highly detailed, often custom-built location. Often it is a family home (The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr Fox, Moonrise Kingdom), but it could also be a school (Rushmore), or mode of transport (a ship in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a train in The Darjeeling Limited). The structure is self-evident in his latest movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. This time round, Anderson vents his architectural frustrations on a scale real-life architects would die for – or at least open a new eastern European office for. Set in the fictitious Republic of Zubrowka, it is a veritable mitteleuropeisches Gesamtkunstwerk. Everything is custom-designed; from flags, banknotes, uniforms, right down to pastry boxes, perfume bottles and stamps.
Of course, there is a hotel. The Grand Budapest is a lavish, pink-iced Jugendstil wedding cake, situated atop an alp, accessible by funicular. Its exterior is a 9ft-tall model, but the interior is real – sort of. The vast atrium lobby, with its stained-glass ceiling and sweeping staircases, is actually the former department store Görlitzer Warenhaus, designed in 1913 by Austrian architect Carl Schumanns, in the east German town of Görlitz. Anderson and his production designer Adam Stockhausen converted it into a 1930s hotel by researching countless archive photos of extinct buildings from the era, grabbing an elevator door here, a stairway there. The result is a meticulously detailed 1:1 model – a vibrant, gilt-edged maelstrom of liveried staff, delivery men, moustachio’d gents and ageing heiresses, all revolving around the circular reception desk and Ralph Fiennes’ debonair concierge.
This is not the first time Anderson has gone overboard on the set building. For Fantastic Mr Fox, he modelled details of the foxes’ burrow on Roald Dahl’s home in Buckinghamshire. In Moonrise Kingdom, he built a full-blown scout camp. But it is not just the sets that make Anderson such an architectural film-maker; it is the way he moves around them. Movie space is generally a physical impossibility, assembled in editing, but Anderson takes pains to show you that he is not cheating – even though he sometimes does. Instead of edits, he prefers zooms, whip pans and especially tracking shots. The latter have become his trademark: fast, long, straight and elaborately choreographed. They are not only demonstrations of his technical virtuosity, they also reinforce the continuity of his painstakingly constructed filmic space. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, to pick one example, when Bill Murray’s marine explorer says: ‘Let me tell you about my boat,’ we see a full-scale cutaway of a ship behind him, populated with little people. The camera pans from cabin to cabin in one interrupted take. You will find these moves time and time again in Anderson’s movies, usually along orthogonal axes: left-right, up-down, into and out of the frame, with the odd pointedly deviation – as in The Grand Budapest Hotel’s joyously silly chase scene down a ski slalom. Like Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock before him, and unlike many current effects-movie directors, Anderson cares deeply about spatial logic. His movies are full of maps, plans, elevations, sections and diagrams, spelling out exactly where we are and where we are going.
As a result of all this, Anderson’s movies are compelling architectural simulacra, but they are not the real thing. Jean Baudrillard would argue that there is no difference, but the Building Regulations inspector might. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not designed for human experience, but for the camera’s. As Stockhausen explains: ‘We worked on the right relationships of doors and hallways and spaces to get the action to move properly. Anderson likes to shoot in complex camera moves, so the physical space really had to line up.’ This is where film and architecture differ, although if Rem Koolhaas had said that no one would bat an eyelid. Anderson’s film spaces also correspond to the characters in them, who are invariably eccentric, damaged, highly intelligent, but misunderstood men – does that profile ring any bells? The point is, liberated from the constraints of function, Anderson can use architecture to manifest psychology.
There is one more element to The Grand Budapest Hotel in particular: as much as an essay on architectural space, it is a story of architectural time. The movie is a homage to bygone European grandeur, and the hotel itself registers the change. It is actually a story-within-a-story-within-a-story – a writer in the 1980s is remembering the 1930s tale, which was narrated to him in the 1960s. At the start of the 1930s segment, we are told the hotel is already past its 19th-century heyday, and most of its clientele are wealthy ageing widows (Tilda Swinton’s vertiginous hair is an engineering achievement in itself). By the close of the 1930s, a fictional war is approaching and the hotel has already been taken over by a fascist military, who use it as a barracks and drape it with their SS-like insignia. But we also see the hotel decades later, with a communist-ear makeover. Here, the Art Nouveau glitz is buried beneath a patina of Eastern Bloc Modernism. The lobby is a deserted sea of plain plasticky surfaces, backlit ceiling panels, geometric forms in sickly greens, browns and oranges. The hotel’s wedding-cake facade has been given a Functionalist makeover: square openings, flat roofs, brown stone cladding. A freeze-frame-or-you’ll-miss-it mock newspaper article informs us that hotel’s suites were ‘divided and partitioned in a democratic fashion’. History, politics, nostalgia, reuse, obsolescence, decay, the long game of architecture – it is all there. Finally, in a pleasing real-world twist to the tale, as a result of the attention Anderson’s movie focused on the Görlitzer Warenhaus, a private investor has bought the demolition-threatened building and is now restoring it. It is set to reopen next year.
Steve Rose writes on film and architecture. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Times and Metropolis
The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson, released 7 March, duration 100 minutes