A different version of Wes Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, would be called The Grand Hotel Abyss. The film would open with two Marxist Jewish intellectuals, superficially resembling Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, as they flee across the border from a central European state that superficially resembles Germany, and has recently been taken over by a brutal fascist movement that bears some resemblance to (yet is not, exactly) the Nazi party. There they would take up residence in a massive, opulent art deco hotel, perched at the top of some fictional Alp. Disguising themselves as Slavic dukes taking a rest cure, Wally (Bill Murray) and Teddie (Jason Schwartzman in a bald wig) could have all sorts of quirky adventures as they attempt to evade capture by the fascist Kommandant Herr Schweinficker (Edward Norton). At every turn, our intrepid pair would be on the verge of finally, definitively giving Schweinficker the slip, when they are confronted by some aspect of society and culture that they (in particular Teddie) just can’t resist loudly taking a critical stance towards, in such a way that this casts irreversible suspicion on their assumed personas and causes people to alert the authorities. Eventually the film ends at the Spanish border, where Benjamin-Bill Murray, in a fit of desperation (after Edward Norton the Nazi has caught up to them following Adorno-Schwartzman’s getting into a fight with a peasant about the impossibility of opening doors well anymore), shoots himself in the head as he declares, “I refute it thus!”
* * *
Even on the most cursory, absent-minded visit to continental Europe, one can see the scars of fascism. Not confined to Europe, the ghosts of Hitler and World War II continue to haunt our collective imagination. And yet, with The Grand Budapest Hotel it seems as if it has finally become possible to make a film about fascism that could at least on some level be described as a quirky romp. Why is this? Well, one good reason is that that fascism of the Nazi variety is, at least in the West, no longer really threatening. Yes it is once again a real presence in places like Greece or Ukraine, but over here, what do we have? In the UK we’ve got the EDL, a fictional organisation started by a police informant as a way of tricking anti-fascist campaigners to make themselves known to the police by attending demos against them. The EDL, of course, are not the real fascists. As I have myself previously claimed in other articles, contemporary fascist tendencies manifest themselves (at least in the West) not in the form of the jackboot and the nice uniform, but in that of the cupcake and the ukulele. It is twee fascism, cupcake fascism that is the real reactionary presence in our society and culture violently maneuvering for a return to some imagined, pure primal unity and demanding the elimination of any elements that cannot be incorporated into it.
But then, we might think, it is entirely dangerous that Wes Anderson of all people has made a film about fascism. Because, if it is the cupcake that is the real fascist threat in our society today, then, the accusation might go, Anderson is Leni Reifenstahl. Certainly, this seems to be the accusation leveled at him in a recent piece for Jacobin by Eileen Jones. For Jones, Anderson is a twee, storybook nostalgist, unwilling to confront history and giving us insipid, comforting narratives that, yes, delight in their own Quality Street tin way but which ultimately apologize for the violence that they don’t simply conceal but even present. Exactly, then, the sort of poet that cupcake fascism needs: look to the (storybook) past, and everything will be all right. This is one message that might seem to be implied by his work.
But I don’t think that Jones understands Anderson, and I don’t think that Jones understands what exactly the twee threat is to society and culture today. For my money, Wes Anderson is a fucking genius; he’s not just one of my favourite filmmakers, he is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. In part, he is so interesting precisely because he confronts the tendency towards nostalgic cupcakiness that has been so prevalent (has become increasingly so) during the period in which he has been working. Now, a lesser filmmaker might have done this in such a way that was blankly dismissive, but not (of course) Anderson; rather, he confronts this particular sort of nostalgia in such a way as to understand and deconstruct its appeal.
Because nostalgia does, let’s face it, have a real pull, a real sort of appeal. The world as we mostly experience it is flat and boring; a place where nothing new ever happens and everyone is tired. It’s a world where we have to do things like go to work, and pay bills, things that one can hardly do at the same time as remembering to breathe. There are moments, that is, where the world can seem utterly disenchanted, devoid of any sort of beautiful possibility. There are, of course, things that can reawaken that in us: meeting someone and falling in love, or seeing a great work of art. But still, these things seem, all things considered, mostly to be pretty rare events. The appeal of nostalgia here is really that, in the past, these things seemed to be much more regularly possible, and everyone seemed to be living much more beautiful lives. This is, similarly, in part the appeal of looking back to moments in our life when we ourselves seemed to be living these sorts of lives.
At their most nostalgic, Wes Anderson’s films present us with all sorts of people who seem to be living what we might call ‘beautiful lives’. These are not necessarily happy lives. M. Gustave from The Grand Budapest Hotel, Max Fischer from Rushmore, most of the characters from The Royal Tenenbaums, and the kids from Moonrise Kingdom would all qualify. What these characters have in common is that they are all strong, well-defined individuals, with noticeable eccentricities that allow them to do things that most people cannot. They live, in various ways, the sorts of existences that seem to have a significance to them, even in their intermittent sadnesses. The world, for these people is an enchanted one, in a way that our world is most typically not enchanted.
But of course, at least on one level of analysis, once we’ve mixed up this sense of enchantment with nostalgia, it becomes bullshit. The past wasn’t great, the past was actually a really violent place where people had to do just as much work if not more than they do nowadays, inequalities were just as if not more entrenched, and if your leaders didn’t like you they wouldn’t just cut your benefits — they’d instigate a pogrom. Thus, if the nostalgist is making the possibility of a beautiful life contingent on returning to some fictional utopia that never existed, then this is, we must think, a deeply reactionary gesture. And certainly this seems to be what Jones thinks that Anderson is doing.
But let’s be careful here. There are, of course, good surface-level reasons to see Anderson as doing just this. Particularly in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which after all does present us with an obviously — and self-consciously — idealised version of the past. Now, I don’t think that this is actually what he is doing, but I will only be able to refute this reading later on. First I want to focus on what the right response would be, if this was indeed (following Jones) what he is doing. Cupcake fascism is strongly related to ‘infantilisation’, the treating of adult consumers as children — and their active acceptance and involvement in the libidinal economy of this treatment. Infantilisation is something we see exhibited in all sorts of cupcakey artefacts: mobile phone adverts with ukulele strumming and lisped hymns to how great it is to be able to chat to all one’s friends, car adverts where drivers zoom through toy towns, cutesy names for functional items, etc. On the one hand, infantilisation is bad because by being made more like children, adults increasingly lack autonomy, in particular the mental maturity needed to think for oneself. But part of the problem is precisely because adults are not at all like children: children, for instance, are on their way to becoming adults, and one of the ways they do this is by exploring their environments creatively and imaginatively through play. But, in becoming infantilised, this is not reawakened in adults: they become children in a tired and ossified sort of way. In fact, part of the problem with cupcake fascism (as with any fascism) is precisely that it shuts down creative, imaginative, future-oriented possibilities. So actually, one way to counteract the bad effects of infantilisation might not be to behave less, but rather to behave more, like children: to recapture somehow in thought and experience (and hence, art) the element of imaginative play.
For Jones, what we need against Anderson’s fantasia is more realism, more melancholy, in short more seriousness, for only then could we present a very serious history in an appropriately serious way. But this seems wrong to me. If the threat of deferring to nostalgia is a capitulation to an essentially flat world, then how can the solution be to flatten out the world more, even if one is then confronting it in its flatness? If we deny the appeal of enchantment, our art will lack the element of utopia. And then, if what we are trying to combat is dystopia, we will be like the magistrates of Strasbourg, who upon their city being hit by the dreaded dancing-plague, prescribed as its cure “more dancing.” Just as it was a mistake for the high-ups in Strasbourg to think that if their afflicted citizenry danced enough the illness would eventually be danced out of them, likewise it seems to me mistaken to think that, if everything gets worse and worse, eventually we will crap our way out of dystopia.
* * *
We can imagine a scene in The Grand Hotel Abyss that goes as follows. Teddie, the Adorno-surrogate, is on a train, fleeing alone from Kommandant Scheinficker, who has briefly detained Wally. He sits in a compartment on a grand old early-20th century sort of train, second class still more luxury than even the richest oligarchs amongst us will ever experience in our wildest dreams, across from a mother and her young son. Almost everyone on the train, Teddie included, is impossibly tense, as the threat of the fascists asserts itself constantly with the thud of jackboots and repeated demands for documents. But this young boy, alone, is delirious with enchantment. He keeps scurrying up and down from his seat from the window, whenever the train passes by a station, reading off the name. “Otterbach.” “Watterbach.” “Reuenthal.” “Monbrunn.” Each of them appears, to this boy, to carry an almost infinite significance, as if to be in any one of these occupied European villages that the train is passing through would be to have achieved happiness. Teddie passes into a reverie, remembering how, similarly, he saw the names of such towns from trains when he was a lad. He is cruelly disturbed from his reverie by a fascist guard demanding papers, of which he has none, causing the philosopher to be brutalised and arrested.
The real Adorno called this ‘metaphysical experience.’ Metaphysical experiences are experiences of a sort of fulfillment, and are strongly associated with things like nostalgia, and memories of childhood. Paradigm examples are a child seeing place-names (like the child on the train in the scene from The Grand Hotel Abyss) and imagining what they must be like, if only one was to go to them, or the stirrings of a child’s imagination by postage stamps (“the visiting-cards that the great states leave in a child’s room,” according to Benjamin in One-Way Street). The idea is that one can see a place-name like ‘Otterbach’, or ‘Madagascar’ on a stamp (accompanied by some exotic imagery) and have this almost ineffable sense that one might be happy there, or happy in a different way than one could be at home.
Metaphysical experience is important for Adorno because it gives us a model along which to think about utopia, without committing to that utopia actually being achievable, or having any sort of determinate content. Because, crucially, all metaphysical experiences are also false. As soon as one grasps them, the possibility of fulfillment within them vanishes to nothing. If a child was actually to go to any of the wondrous places they’ve spied the name of from the train, they’d find a town just like any other, maybe even slightly crappier than the one from which they came. Nevertheless, something has been gained from the experience: an idea of utopia gives us something, which can have critical purchase against dystopia, even if we can’t say exactly what it is.
At the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel, the old Zero Moustafa, sitting in the dining-room of the endrabened, Communist-era Grand Budapest where he has just related his story to Jude Law’s writer character, remarks of his late mentor M. Gustave that the world he lived in was (I’m quoting from memory, sorry if this means I’ve missed out something crucial that gets the sense of this line wrong) “now dead, probably was dead long before he was even born.” This picks up on something that Jones criticises about the film: she describes the Europe it presents as “a baroque Neverland still embedded in a comically aristocratic 19th-century past, but on the cusp of a fascist takeover.” Apparently, this is supposed to be a bad thing, since it means that the world it presents is implausible; likewise, Anderson is criticised for casting F. Murray Abraham as the old Zero, despite Abraham’s looking nothing like his counterpart Tony Revolori — just as Jude Law, as the young writer, doesn’t look all that much like Tom Wilkinson (his old self) either.
But actually, all these things are precisely what I think makes the film work. The fact is, that the world we are presented with in The Grand Budapest Hotel is bullshit, but the film knows that it is bullshit: that’s the point. This is why the film has not one but three layers of framing narrative: the girl in the cemetery at the start looking at the statue of the writer, the old writer relating how he came to write his book, Zero Moustafa’s story. This is a film that completely brackets reality, because it is also a film that rejects reality. It is only by rejecting reality that M. Gustave ever could live the sort of ‘beautiful life’ that he is depicted living at the start; he needed the right illusion for him to be able to do this, and this illusion was that of a storybook 19th-century Europe that no longer could really exist.
Of course, this illusion proves to be completely unsustainable, but this does not mean that existing within the illusion itself is problematic; what is problematic is if we can’t adapt to these changing circumstances, and certainly M. Gustave is one Anderson character who is portrayed as being unable to do this. Perhaps the starkest contrast here is with Max Fischer in Rushmore. Max, of course, also requires an unsustainable illusion in order to live his beautiful life. “What’s the secret, Max?” Bill Murray’s Hermann asks him in probably the best exchange of the film, “You seem to have it pretty figured out.” “The secret, I dunno . . .” he replies. “I think you’ve just got to find something you love to do, and then do it for the rest of your life. For me it’s going to Rushmore.” For Max Fischer the sustainability of his beautiful life is predicated on the possibility of remaining a high school student forever, which is of course impossible. And this is, over the course of the movie, something that is destroyed for him after he is expelled. But by the end of the film, Max has found a way to do all the things he liked doing at Rushmore, the things that made it special for him, outside of Rushmore. Thus, confronted by reality, Max manages to find a way to adapt his illusion to allow him to continue to live his life in the way he wants to, after it has been snatched away.
This is how, in an Adornian context, we are supposed to utilize metaphysical experience within a process of critique (and art can be just as much a part of a process of critique as a theoretically-informed essay). Metaphysical experiences give us an idea of what it might be like to be fulfilled, but they are false. They are false because when we are actually confronted with the reality of the things they are associated with, the fulfillment is no longer there. The reason for this (beyond just that most towns in fact are pretty crappy; this is the reason why it is necessarily the case that they are false) is because the fulfillment itself stands somehow outside of time. Metaphysical experiences are experiences of eternal fulfillment, which of course can be nothing at all for living, temporal beings. The challenge thus is to take up the element of utopia within a process of becoming. In this way, it can enable us to live an enchanted rather than disenchanted life, to combat dystopia.
It is worth thinking here about how nostalgia itself is a dialectically inferior version of this; that is how nostalgia, although relevantly similar to metaphysical experience, is not actually going to get us what we wanted out of metaphysical experience, properly understood. If metaphysical experience as Adorno describes it is only possible from a sort of child’s perspective, then nostalgia seems to be what adults have to defer to in order to think about it; remembering a world where fulfillment seemed like it was possible, even if it never really was. But this is of course problematic for a number of reasons. For one thing, we might have had such a terrible, damaged childhood that these sorts of experiences were never a possibility for us, or at any rate we can’t remember having any; in that case it seems like we will lack an idea of utopia completely, and can never get one for ourselves, either. But even for those luckier amongst us, it seems that if we must defer to our actual childhoods to get an idea of what fulfillment might be, then this will in some measure hypostatise what the good looks like: in particular for Adorno, it can sometimes sound like, well, the bourgeois world of his childhood, which is unsurprising if we are getting his idea of utopia from his childhood. Thus it seems like the idea of fulfillment we can get from nostalgia can only be taken up, at best, in an ossified, brittle sort of way, not really inhabited in actual, lived experience (as it would need to be).
This is something that I think Anderson must understand, because it is essentially what is dramatized in The Grand Budapest Hotel. If we can’t adapt to changing circumstances, if we become too ossified and brittle, then nostalgia will be all we have on which to cling. Old Zero Moustafa is an example of a character like this, and indeed the character is, compared to M. Gustave, entirely undynamic throughout the film: he becomes a great concierge just by copying his mentor, not by inhabiting the role in any meaningful way for himself. Thus he becomes this sad figure, totally existentially alone, as Jude Law’s writer notes, sat in a world that he was once a part of, but is his no longer. M. Gustave, too, can be viewed as being like this to a certain extent: it is recognized by the end that his mode of life is utterly impossible.
As I’ve said with reference to Rushmore, the key it seems would be to actualize the element of play within experience, even from an adult perspective. But nowadays, it seems, we are mostly all the sort of infantilised adults who are treated like children, yet cannot play like them, so nostalgia is all we have available to us. Perhaps a lot of the reason why Anderson’s films are popular is because they appeal to people who like to wallow in phony nostalgia; maybe this is indeed the majority of his audience. But crucially, his films also allow us to think about how the appeal of nostalgia might be actualized as something better than what it in fact is: the right sort of enchantment against a disenchanted world.
* * *
The Grand Hotel Abyss ends with a suicide. Walter Benjamin’s own dramatic rejection of reality on the Spanish border led to the shocked authorities opening it up to the other refugees who were trying to get through; they were eventually able to escape to Lisbon, and flee Europe entirely. Likewise in the film, it is implied that Wally’s act gives Teddie the time he needs to evade capture by Scheinficker and finally reach safety, where he establishes a lucrative career in America complaining about the shape of tables from a Marxist perspective and yelling at teenagers with their hands in their pockets.
We have a tendency to think that, when everything is bad, the best thing art and criticism can do is present to us exactly how bad it is, to really capture the full extent of that badness for everyone to see. But this is, I think, more of an affirmative stance than many people realise. Real change can only be brought about by strategically rejecting reality in the right way, at the right time. Yes, this requires knowledge that things are bad, but that’s only half the story. Just as optimism without pessimism is insipid, for pessimism to be really critical, it must also require the courage to be optimistic.
Ed. note: A version of this piece originally appeared on Tom Whyman’s blog, Infinitely Full of Hope.