On the Night Train with Wes Anderson

The director opens a new take on old Europe in The Grand Budapest Hotel

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The night train hasn't yet left Berlin when Bill Murray pops into the compartment to ask where the balalaika music is.

This is not actually that surprising a question. The person he's asking is Wes Anderson. It's the day after the premiere of the writer-director's latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, at the Berlin Film Festival, where it will go on to win the Grand Jury Prize. (It opens in U.S. theaters on March 7.) Murray and Anderson are en route to a press junket in Prague. Barely a minute passes before Randall Poster, the film's music supervisor, comes by to announce that he's brought speakers; the balalaika music will be in his compartment.

But let's make the obvious leap: the scene revolving around Anderson bears a striking similarity to one of the set pieces you've come to expect in his movies. There are miniature bottles of Moët crammed into the sink, stern-faced German rail officials, a large cast of characters bucket-brigading luggage. Even the filmmaker, willowy and with piano-worthy fingers that he tends to steeple when he makes a point, fits in.

In October--the same month that saw the release of a massive coffee-table book about Anderson's films--Saturday Night Live created a parody trailer for a Wes Anderson horror flick called The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders, starring Owen Wilson, as portrayed by Edward Norton. As killers surround a house, they exchange notes on cute stationery with the homeowner. Meanwhile, the homeowner's children prepare for battle with their favorite weapons, a "rock hammer, Swiss Army knife, slingshot, firecrackers, ship in a bottle, protractor, picture of Edith Piaf, assault rifle, little flag." It did what the best parodies should, relying on and highlighting an inescapable fact of the work it lovingly skewered: that you know a Wes Anderson movie when you see it.

Those who dislike his work call it twee or fussy or hipster, but there's no denying it's unique. His is a body of work--eight features, from 1996's Bottle Rocket to 2012's Moonrise Kingdom and now The Grand Budapest Hotel--rather than a run of movies. He's been nominated for three Academy Awards: twice for Best Original Screenplay (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom), once for Best Animated Film (Fantastic Mr. Fox). Norton calls him "one of the most original and distinctive directorial voices of my generation."

The Grand Budapest Hotel is, fittingly, the grandest element of that oeuvre. It doesn't take place in Budapest. Like many of his films, it's set in a place and time that is one step removed from history. It's vaguely Central Europe during the onset of 1930s fascism, and the aesthetics of the era are rendered with panache. It stars Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave, the hotel's concierge, and Tony Revolori as his young protégé, with the cast rounded out by repeat Anderson collaborators such as Wilson, Norton, Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody, as well as first-timers Jude Law and Saoirse Ronan. It's a caper, complete with a stolen painting and a jailbreak and a ski chase, and loads of locations--including one, the Bad Schandau elevator, that Anderson first saw out the window on an earlier trip along this very rail route.

But wait. Let's go back to that train. This time, look closer.

Making History

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