In the coming weeks, it is likely that at least one or two articles will be run through the movie blogosphere about a seemingly random topic: an early 20th century German writer who was hugely popular in his day but has since plunged into obscurity. His name is Stefan Zweig, and the reason you’ll be reading about him is that he gets a shout-out at the beginning of the credits of The Grand Budapest Hotel. When I saw the name, I was quizzical but intrigued — it was completely unfamiliar to me. But learning about Zweig actually helped me to better understand and appreciate the new Wes Anderson movie, and so I would recommend looking up the man and his work before going into the film.
An episode of WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show is the best resource I’ve found for learning all the necessary details of Zweig’s life in an expeditious manner. In 2007, Lopate interviewed Zweig’s biographer, George Prochnik. It was part of their “Underappreciated” series, though I suspect getting name-checked in a Wes Anderson film will do a lot more to boost Zweig’s popularity than a public radio show managed (no offense meant to WNYC, of course). The interview will only take up 18 minutes of your day, so I highly recommend it. You might not learn anything you wouldn’t from a Wikipedia page, but it’s more fun this way:
Once you know about Stefan Zweig, you see how much of him and his work is apparent in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The story-within-a-story structure, a scandalous love affair as a plot device, the wartime setting, the blending of higher and lower classes and other elements all seem to be hallmarks of Zweig’s work. But the man is truly embodied in the main character of the film, Ralph Fienne’s M. Gustave.
It goes deeper than Zweig and Gustave sharing mustache styles. In his interview, Prochnik describes Zweig as a man cast adrift by society changing around him. He watched Europe descend from what he viewed as a cosmopolitan peace into barbarism and war. He was canny enough to escape his native Austria just as Hitler began his ascent, but he was nonetheless stricken by what happened to his home. He viewed his work as a way to preserve some small part of the better days. Eventually, his despair led to his suicide. As Prochnik puts it, Zweig knew that the world would go on just fine without him, but he didn’t see a place for himself in it.
M. Gustave is also a man out of time. As the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, he maintains a realm of strict order, even as the country around it is overrun by fascism. Like Zweig, he holds on to some small shred of decency through his work, futile and seemingly powerless as it may be. Despite his nearly unflappable demeanor, Gustave often hints at a much more melancholy disposition. Hearing of Zweig’s life gave me the same feeling of pity that I did when watching Gustave on screen.
The framing device for The Grand Budapest Hotel features a girl reading a book next to a monument to that book’s author. The plaque bears only the title “Author,” his true name withheld from us. Much the same way, Stefan Zweig, at one time the most popular, most translated writer in the world, has fallen into obscurity. But that might be about to change. I feel that I might have gotten even more out of The Grand Budapest Hotel than I already did had I known of Zweig, his life and his work before seeing the film. So I strongly encourage at least a little bit of research before diving in to Wes Anderson’s latest diorama world.