Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Forget the Shrill Squabbling

Auden in his farewell to Yeats said that poetry changes nothing. Peter Cook, asked to comment on the power of satire, talked of all those wonderfully brave and edgy satiric cabarets in Berlin and how brilliantly they had arrested the rise of Hitler. In the same vein,  Stefan Zweig in his The World of Yesterday describes how he and his fellow students in pre-First World War Vienna remained oblivious to the events that were soon to destroy their peaceful playgrounds:

"We ... however, wholly absorbed in our literary ambitions, noticed little of the ... dangerous changes in our native land; our eyes were bent entirely on books and pictures. We took not the slightest interest in political and social problems; what did all this shrill squabbling mean in our lives? The city was in a state of agitation at election time; we went to the libraries. The masses rose up; we wrote and discussed poetry. We failed to see the writing on the wall in letters of fire. Like King Belshazzar before us, we dined on the delicious dishes of the arts and never looked apprehensively ahead. Only decades later, when the roof and walls of the building fell in on us, did we realise that the foundations had been undermined long before, and the downfall of individual freedom in Europe had begun with the new century."

This inability or refusal to notice the storm clouds beyond our own immediate existences - whether those clouds represent war or cataclysm of some other kind or, that last great unavoidable, our own eventual deaths - is an underlying theme of Wes Anderson's new film, Grand Hotel Budapest.  Fortunately, the idea, like the pastries from Mendl's that keep popping up throughout the film, is presented in such a light and colourful manner that it does not make one sad.

Anderson claims Grand Budapest Hotel was at least in part inspired by Zweig, and certainly there are elements in The World of Yesterday that do seem to be echoed in the film. For instance, the borderline surreal atmosphere of much of the film is matched by the genuine absurdities Zweig notices in real life:

"By a strange caprice of the Belgian army, its machine guns were transported on little carts with dogs harnessed to them."

Similarly, while Zweig was at least aware of the immanence of war, unlike the film's characters, the account he gives of his train journey back to Austria from Ostend in July 1914 bears comparison with the train journeys made by Monsieur Gustave and Zero:

"... halfway to Herbesthal, the first German station, the train suddenly stopped in the middle of the countryside. We crowded to the corridor windows. What had happened? And then, in the darkness, I saw freight train after freight train coming the other way towards us, with open trucks covered by tarpaulins under which I thought I saw the menacing shapes of cannon. My heart missed a beat. This must be the vanguard of the German army. But perhaps, I consoled myself, it was just a safety precaution, merely the threat of mobilisation, not mobilisation itself. There is always a strong desire to go on hoping in an hour of danger. Finally the signal came, the line was clear, and the train moved on and came into Herbesthal station. I jumped down the steps from the carriage to find a newspaper and make enquiries. But the station was occupied by soldiers. When I tried to go into the waiting room a stern, white-bearded official was standing in front of the closed door, keeping people out - no-one was allowed in the station buildings, he said. However, I had already heard the faint clink and clatter of swords, and the hard sound of rifle butts grounded on the floor behind the carefully curtained glass panes in the door. There was no doubt about it, this monstrous thing was in progress..."

I loved the Grand Budapest Hotel. Perhaps it is the manner of Zweig's death - or rather the odd circumstance of his having committed suicide with his much younger female companion, (I blame him for taking her with him, when of course it may have been her choice and she in fact who instigated the whole thing) - that makes me less than enthusiastic about him. However, if he managed to inspire such a sparkling charming movie, for me his legacy is greater than it was before

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