The Narrative Onion and the Art of Storytelling: An Analysis of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), directed, produced and written by Wes Anderson and starring a multitude of Anderson’s favorite stars, is a masterpiece of style that contains complex narrative layers, keeping viewers visually entranced until the last frame. Audiences are asked to suspend disbelief as we are whisked away to a genteel time and land, where order and manners are as important (if not more so) than politics, and relationships are forged through these shared values.

When I was in graduate school studying literary theory, a peer suggested that the layers of narrative in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein were not unlike those of an onion; stories laid gently on top of one another to create a single, incredibly intricate and fulfilling tale. Grand Budapest does much the same thing, with four very important stories being told at four different moments in time, which ultimately come together to create an epic tale of love and loss.

Spoilers ahead, sweetie!

Fox Searchlight Pictures

The movie begins in the present, when we see a young woman attending to a shrine in a cemetery for an unknown figure. She is holding a copy of a book–The Grand Budapest Hotel– which are the memoirs of the unnamed Author (Tom Wilkinson). Then, we are taken to the Author, who speaks to the audience from his home in 1985. He begins to tell of his time at the Grand Budapest and suddenly, the narrative shifts again, this time to a war-stricken, archaic hotel, located in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, a European alpine state. It is 1968, and the facilities are desolate, while the guests are few. The Young Author (Jude Law) meets the hotel’s elderly proprietor, and asks him how he came to own the Grand Budapest. Thus, the final layer of narrative, and the meat of the story, begins. The owner is Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who begins his tale for the Young Author in 1932, when Zero started as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest as the protege of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), concierge and the embodiment of a richly ornate European lifestyle.

Gustave is full of genuine affection for each of his older, female clients, with whom he takes care of emotionally as well as physically. It is one of these clients, Madame D. (Tilda Swinson) who dies and, in her last will and testament, leaves Gustave the priceless painting, Boy With Apple. Madame D’s family is greedy and so, Gustave and Zero decide to steal the painting before the family can deny that it belongs to him. Of course, this infuriates the old woman’s family, and so they plot to frame Gustave for the murder of Madame D, who died of strychnine poisoning. As Gustave and Zero travel back to the Grand Budapest with the painting, they vow to become blood brothers and, for Zero’s assistance and loyalty, Gustave bequeaths his future fortune to Zero, his only heir.

Thus the twist–a murder-mystery plot that involves Madame D’s son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his muscle-bound thug-for-hire, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), who kills Deputy Kovax (Jeff Goldblum), the lawyer who is executor of the family estate. Gustave, although he wasn’t in town at the time of her death, is arrested and sent to jail, where he imbues the old-world values he so cherishes in the surly occupants of the prison. Alongside 3 other inmates, led by a very tattooed Ludwig (Harvey Keitel), Gustave escapes and he and Zero, head to the Grand Budapest, to obtain the painting they secured on site. With the help of Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Zero’s fiancee and pastry chef at Mendl’s bakery, and the Society of the Crossed Keys, a secret society of concierges, Gustave is cleared of all charges and, after a secret, second will is discovered, becomes the sole proprietor of Madame D’s property, which includes the Grand Budapest Hotel.


For Zero, this means the hotel becomes his at the instance of Gustave’s death, which comes sooner than we would like. Within the starkness of black and white images, we find out that Gustave was killed by soldiers as he once again defended his friend, Zero, from the unjust actions of harsh military forces. We are reminded that this caper, as exciting and hilarious as it has been, is set in a (fictional) country while it is being invaded right before a (fictional) war. The illusion of genteelism is broken, and we see now that Gustave, as Zero tells the Young Author in 1968, has been living in a carefully constructed fantasy, while the country around him irrevocably lost its charm. When the Young Author asks Zero why he has kept the hotel, even after the days of the resort hotel are so clearly over, we receive yet another layer in the narrative; Agatha is dead and the hotel was the one place she and Zero had been happy.The dark center to this story reveals the bitter truth of these characters’ sadness and yet doesn’t take away from the sugary sweet confections of the narrative. While the characters may be more complex than viewers originally thought, isn’t that the case with humankind? Gustave and the Grand Budapest have been shaped to become institutions of polite society, and yet there is so much more going on underneath the surface. The complexities of Anderson’s characters, even those who don’t have a lot of screen time, create layers that are not easily penetrated, and which may be painful to uncover, but, in the end, are well worth the work.

In addition to the complex language and plot, the visual effects tell a story, as well. Anderson uses 3 aspect ratios to differentiate the narratives, stop motion framing, miniature sets and vibrant colors to bring the setting to life. The backdrop acts as another layer, whether it is in the intricate costumes of the hotel patrons or the symmetrical pattern of the windows at the Grand Budapest, every image on the screen speaks to intricacies of the plot, each picture a story within itself. With this, his eighth film, Anderson has clearly presented his devotion to the art of storytelling in a visual masterpiece that is at once thoughtful, whimsical and complex.


xoxo The Collectiva Diva

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