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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This is a real train, and not even a particularly fancy one. Anderson, 44, is a real person. He's in Berlin, which is a real city, for real work-related reasons. It's easy to imagine that the filmmaker lives the way his fictional characters do, but what part of himself is really in the film? "Nothing I can think of," he says. "I don't think anything springs to mind." Case in point: the reason he's on a train is not so much the glamour as his distaste for flying. It's not that his films aren't personal--he uses them to showcase books and movies and music that he loves, and he credits time spent in various European cities over the past decade with helping him develop Grand Budapest (that his life is real doesn't mean it's not charmed)--but there's a difference between making something personal and making a mirror.

Take, for example, the matter of nostalgia. There's a vintage look to many of Anderson's films, and sure, he cops to a certain love of the past. While researching potential shooting locations for Grand Budapest, Anderson traveled to many grand hotels before constructing a set based on that research in an old department store in the German town of Görlitz. Looking back at those trips, he laments the amount of beauty destroyed in the years since the real '30s. "It's hard not to sometimes feel like, What a drag. We had something great here," he says. "Most places have changed radically. It is usually for the worse, a bit."

But his appreciation of the past isn't just about chic-hotel beauty--he's also deeply concerned about overpopulation--and it doesn't preclude a love of the present. Berlin is dominated by postwar construction, and Anderson believes being all new doesn't have to mean being all bad. "[In Berlin], there's also Renzo Piano and striking modernist stuff and the newest kinds of architectural ideas, things that just were not possible on the engineering front until pretty recently," he says. "I feel like that balances it out."

Besides, the nostalgia in Grand Budapest is not his own. It belongs to Stefan Zweig, a genteel Austrian-Jewish writer who escaped the Nazis but killed himself after it became clear that the beauty of life as it had been in pre--World War II Vienna could never be recaptured. He left a brave-sounding note about quitting while one is ahead. Zweig is one of the film's main inspirations, the others being Hollywood visions of 1930s Europe, courtesy of directors like Ernst Lubitsch, and a friend whose mannerisms influenced Fiennes' character's. Zweig's work was long out of print in the U.S. but is having something of a renaissance: he's credited in the movie, and on March 13, Pushkin Press will publish a new collection of his work, curated by Anderson.

Zweig's influence on the film means that The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place against a real-world historical backdrop, fictional though the movie's version may be. More than any of Anderson's previous films, it makes clear that the distance he puts between cinema and reality doesn't mean he's not thinking about something big and real. It's got stand-ins for Nazism, with adherents dubbed the Zig Zags, and for communism too. So though Anderson doesn't depict the actual history of 1930s Europe--that's already been done so many ways, he says, that M. Gustave's story is more interesting without it--he's not skirting the issue.

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