Defense and Hypomania at “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

by Herbert H. Stein


The first time I saw the film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, I left the theater with a particularly good, buoyant feeling. On the way out, I saw Shelley Orgel on the line to get in. He later told me that he had had a similar reaction to it. Two or three weeks later, I went again with a friend who hadn’t seen it. I was particularly looking forward to seeing it a second time, and, if anything, I enjoyed it more, with that same somewhat hypomanic feeling.

There’s nothing intrinsic about the film’s style that would necessarily draw me to it. Although the madcap quality, a touch of primary process, is appealing, the predominant humor is something I would call verbal slap- stick, a child-like play with language. There are several uses of funny sounding made-up German phrases, lightly mocking the use of such terms by 20th century intellectuals. In line with that the characters in the film are often dressed in exaggerated period costumes for comic effect, and the film liberally makes fun of people’s looks. All of that can be amusing if done well, but hardly something that would cause me to keep returning.

There are familiarly pleasing plot lines of a developing father/son relationship, a coming of age story and a gentle love story, all told in comic fashion. The film has a host of recognizable and sometimes tantalizingly almost recognizable actors, often in cameo roles. It was clearly fun to try to place them through their disguises. The amusements mount, but don’t really explain my reaction.

As I began to think about the film and to examine it more closely, I realized that the answer to my question lies in the structure of the film and its humor.

The film starts with a descending series of flashbacks, the temporal equivalent of a Russian doll, with one time period looking back on a second earlier time period which looks back on a third time period. We begin with a scene which is presumably close to the present in which a woman devotedly goes to the memorial of a great writer. We immediately flash back a number of years, to 1985, and see the writer, himself, speaking to a camera while partly off camera a little boy squirts him with a water pistol. The author’s somewhat pompous speech moves us back many more years to the time when he was a young man visiting the over-the-hill Grand Budapest Hotel, in 1968. With the author, now a young man, we meet the then current owner of the hotel, who tells his story, from his own youth, pulling us much further back in time to the period just before World War II for the main action of the story.

In effect, we feel the passage of time, moving backwards stepwise, while also getting a sense of a story that has been told and retold by different people until it is handed down to us. The overall effect is somewhat reassuring. We are continually reminded that even as we get caught up in the action on the screen, it is not immediate reality, but a story being told in a particular style about a time long ago. We are intrigued by the colorful telling of the story, and also reassured at crucial moments that what we are seeing is far removed from our current world. The little boy with the water pistol squirting the pompous author sets a tone of self-ridicule. The implicit message is that this is all a joke, not to be taken seriously.

As we move from the older author to his younger version, we get our first view of the Grand Budapest Hotel and his description of it, “… a picturesque, elaborate, and once wide- ly celebrated establishment. I expect some of you will know it. It was off-season and, by that time, decidedly out-of-fashion; and it had already begun its descent into shabbiness and eventual demolition.”

There, the narrator comes across the eccentric, elderly owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa, described as “A small, elderly man, smartly dressed, with an exceptionally lively, intelligent face, and an immediately perceptible air of sadness. He was, like the rest of us, alone, but also, I must say, he was the first that struck one as being deeply and truly lonely.”

This somewhat serious statement is immediately followed by a scene, an interruption, which uses a defensive style, a form of denial that consists of displacement and trivialization of what is frightening and disturbing.

The author learns from the concierge, M. Jean, about this eccentric man, but then there is a tragi-comic interlude (I’ve taken the verbal description from the published screenplay, in italics):

Jean frowns. The fat businessman, sitting at a table in the middle of the lobby drinking hot chocolate and eating biscotti, appears to be choking to death.

The author says in voice-over, “At that moment the curtain rose on a parenthetical, domestic drama which required the immediate and complete attention of M. Jean. …”

We see a flurry of activity around the choking man, replete with a hiker and a Saint Bernard with a flask.

“… but, frankly, did not hold mine for long.”

While the others are huddled around the choking victim, the author calmly enters the elevator.

There is something frightening, yet comic about this scene. It is scary to see someone choking. The author’s indifference appears cold and unempathic, and we may feel that; yet, the comic, slapstick elements in the scene cause the viewer to be both amused, equally unempathic, while also frightened, concerned. It skirts the divide between tragedy and comedy.

The author, indifferent to the choking scene, is left intensely curious about Moustafa, “gespannt wie ein Flitzebogen, that is, on the edge of my seat, where I remained throughout the next morning until, in what I have found to be its mysterious and utterly reliable fashion, fate, once again, intervened on my behalf.”

He meets the mysterious Mr. Moustafa in the baths at the hotel. They are discussing how Moustafa came to own the hotel, when their dialogue is momentarily interrupted by a bizarre, comic scene, as described in the screenplay:

“At this moment, one of the matrons of the hammam blasts the fat, now naked, business- man with a jet of icy water. He hollers as he is sprayed down.”

The author and Moustafa exchange a little smile and go on with their story. This episode, involving the same fat man who had been choking in the last, is not as frightening as the previous one, but along with it’s comic quality is a clear dose of sadomasochism.

These two scenes, the choking man and the same man screaming as he is sprayed down in the baths, are not part of the story. They appear to be superfluous, added for comic effect. We are explicitly being told, this is unimportant to our story. You may disregard it. We are in each instance given a glimpse of something disturbing while being told that it is a joke, incidental, to be disregarded.

Moustafa is the narrator of the final flashback, the primary story, set in the period just before the Second World War. It focuses immediately on the film’s central character, M. Gustave, “the beloved, original concierge of the Grand Budapest.”

M. Gustave is a somewhat effeminate, decadent, charming and forceful man, played by Ralph Fiennes. In his first scene, we have another of these subtle movements from the serious and painful to the superficial detail. Gustave is preparing an aristocratic octogenarian’s departure from the hotel. She insists that she cannot go home and begs him to come with her because she fears if she leaves alone, she will never see him again.

Gustave tries to calm her: “You’ve nothing to fear. You’re always anxious before you travel. I admit you appear to be suffering a more acute attack on this occasion, but, truly and honestly … (Suddenly taken aback.) Dear God. What’ve you done to your fingernails?”

He goes on to express his horror at the color of her nail polish, then gets her on her way as she ponders over the new problem.

Here, one of the film’s characters, the very elderly Madame du T., is distracted from her mortal fear, a fear we will later learn was justified, by having her attention turned to something superficial, her nail polish. There is a neat reversal, the ominous trivialized and the superficial brought to our attention.

We soon come to a more striking and pointed example of this same defensive style. Some time has passed, and Zero Moustafa has become established as a “lobby boy” at the hotel under the personal tutelage of M. Gustave. We see him walking into town in the snow to get the morning papers. On his way back, he glances down and sees something in the papers that pushes him into a run back to the hotel and Gustave. He interrupts Gustave (who was finishing a tryst with one of the hotel’s elderly female patrons), knocking furiously on a room door, to show him the paper. We see the headlines, “WILL THERE BE WAR? TANKS AT FRONTIER.” Momentarily, we are struck by the imminent danger of a world, a civilization, about to undergo terrible changes as World War II and the Nazi advance are onrushing; but, that is not what has caught Zero’s attention or that now catches the attention of Gustave. It is a tease. Below that article is another, “DOWAGER COUNTESS FOUND DEAD IN BOUDOIR,” with a dramatic photo- graph of Madame du T.’s body sprawled on a carpet.

Once again, our attention is called to a disturbing event, but then we are pulled away to a lesser tragedy framed in comic presentation. The countess’s death has a comical quality in this context, in part because she has been presented as a caricature, an overly dramatized figure, playing at being beautiful and seductive while appearing quite the opposite. There is something absurd about the image of her lying on that rug, playing a tragic diva. But what is more striking when we take a closer look is the contrast between what we know to be real Nazi tanks at the border and this scene from a dramatic telling of a light fiction. It is as if the filmmakers are telling us, “Don’t worry about the Nazi invasion, it is peripheral to our story.”

As viewers, we may quickly become accustomed to this repetitive technique, and even accept it as a form of humor. The sense of danger is much more trenchant when we see Gustave and Zero on a train heading to Madame du T.’s estate for the funeral. The train stops abruptly and grim-faced, dangerous looking soldiers barge into their compartment, speaking with authority with Germanic accents. They want to pull Zero off the train because he does not have the proper papers. When Gustave objects, he and Zero are violently grabbed and pushed up against the wall, blood trickling from their noses. Suddenly, rescue comes in the form of an officer who has fond memories of M. Gustave from his family visits to the Grand Budapest when he was a boy. Once again, the mood shifts with the light banter between Gustave and the grateful officer. We are relieved of having to witness the kind of scene that we might have expected if this were not a comedy.

And what would that scene have been? At the end of the scene in the train, after the soldiers have left them, M. Gustave says to Zero,

“You see? There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant—Oh, fuck it.”

What are we spared here? We have been told that we are witnessing the end of a civilization, a civilization embodied by M. Gustave and the hotel. We have seen the ominous headlines about tanks across the border. Now we see thuggish looking soldiers boarding a train and threatening to remove helpless passengers, handling them violently. These are images of a new world order in which powerful, totalitarian forces obliterate the personal life. The “civilization” represented by the Grand Budapest is itself a myth of a peaceful time in which people could focus on the joys and problems of everyday life. It is presented as a caricature. But it is a welcome escape from the realities the film alludes to and then hides.

Although it is somewhat disguised, this could be viewed as a holocaust film, and my hypomanic response a result of the film’s defensive style that continually distracts the viewer towards the trivial, humorous fictions, while presenting disconnected images suggestive of the real horror. The artistry of the film allows us to briefly hold those images, not fully formed, just long enough, it seems, to allow us to feel that we have successfully escaped them.

With this in mind, we can now see evidence of another defensive technique, one sometimes seen in dreams1 and in the associations of analytic hours. We are presented with disconnected images, each faintly suggestive of the hidden, disturbing content, but displaced and out of context so that we can keep it just beyond recognition.

As the central action of the film evolves, Nazi brutality is embodied in a character named Jopling, played with brilliant sadistic effect by Willem Dafoe. Jopling is not ostensibly a Nazi or even a soldier. He is a thug working for Madame du T’s greedy and ruthless son, Dmitri. Nevertheless, he commits a series of violent and horrendous acts that are similarly disguised in humorous form.

We see him in a family meeting with “Deputy Kovacz,” who is the executor for Madame’s estate. As Kovacz is telling the Madame’s son, Dmitri, that there are questions about the will, a missing document which must be investigated, Jopling is petting Kovacz’s pet cat. At the end of the meeting, when Kovacz has refused to squash the investigation, saying that he is an attorney and must follow the rule of law, Jopling abruptly throws the cat out the window. We see it flattened on the ground below like a cartoon character. Kovacz says, unbelieving, “Did you just throw my cat out the window?” There is no response. We are left with the disbelief of brutality intruding upon ordinary events and the rule of law.

Jopling follows Kovacz as he leaves the estate. Kovacz’s fear obviously mounts as he gets off a bus and runs into a museum which is near closing time. Kovacz tries to elude Jopling, listening to his boots as they follow him through the museum, but finally opens a door to a street where he sees a bicycle. This is the script’s description of what follows.

“There is a bicycle leaning against the wall across the alley behind the museum. Deputy Kovacs grabs the door frame and takes one last, quick look back into the darkness behind him. Insert: Deputy Kovacs’ hand on the knob. A second hand, wearing brass knuckles, gently enfolds it.

Cut to Deputy Kovacs’ face. He gasps.

The door hammers shut with a bang. Four of Deputy Kovacs’ fingers, gripping the door frame, pop off at the knuckles all at once and fall down into a shallow puddle. On the other side of the door, there is a scream of bloodcurdling agony, then a thump, a thwhack, and, finally, a wallop. Pause. The door opens again. Jopling comes out in his stocking feet. He puts on his boots. He takes out a handkerchief, leans down and collects the four fingers off the ground, wraps them up, slips them into his pocket, and walks away down the alley.”

This is a terrifying image to anyone, but what we see once again reminds us that it is just a farce. On the ground, we see what are supposed to be the fingers, but they look like cartoon fingers, not real ones, lifeless sausage- looking fingers that Jopling can easily collect. Even the screenplay emphasizes the comic, unreal quality of the events with the words, “thump”, “thwack”, and “wallop,” although we actually hear only the scream. We hear that Kovacz has disappeared. But even that ominous fact is blunted because Kovacz, like most of the characters in the film, is a comically drawn figure from a past that we know to be somewhat unreal and overly dramatized, a world, a “civilization,” that in this context is itself more fantasy than real.

In a later scene, a policeman opens a basket and pulls from it a severed head, clearly Jopling’s work. The image is frightening , but leaves us relieved that it is not the head of Zero’s beloved girlfriend, Agatha, as we had been lead to fear.

There are additional images that in themselves are further disguised, but in context add to the impressions of Nazi atrocities: scenes in a prison in which an odd assortment of misfit prisoners wear ill-fitting uniforms and are fed mush that might suggest the camps, a mock underground consisting of hotel managers, “the society of the crossed keys,” that hides and moves Gustave and Zero as they escape from the police (who have been falsely led to believe that Gustave killed Madame du T.) and, more importantly, Jopling.

Casual murders, dismembering of bodies, prison uniforms, an escape from mortal danger with the aid of an underground, all images that suggest the terrible times that underlie this story, but told with just enough remove, discontinuity and comic disguise to spare us the impact.

We come closest to full disclosure of the sense of tragedy through Zero, himself. We know that he comes from some form of impoverished background. After Gustave has escaped from the prison, with the help of Zero, who with the help of his girlfriend who works in a pastry shop near the hotel has smuggled in tools inside pastries, Gustave is horrified to learn that Zero has not only failed to bring all the necessaries for a disguise, but has also forgotten to bring Gustave’s favorite perfume.

Angrily, he says to Zero, “Precisely. I suppose this is to be expected back in Aq Salim al-Jabat where one’s prized possessions are a stack of filthy carpets and a starving goat, and one sleeps behind a tent-flap and survives on wild dates and scarabs, but it’s not how I trained you. What on God’s earth possessed you to leave the homeland where you very obviously belong and travel unspeakable distances to become a penniless immigrant in a refined, highly cultivated society that, quite frankly, could’ve gotten along very well without you?”

Zero replies, “The war.”
 “Say again?”
“Well, you see, my father was murdered, and the rest of my family were executed by firing squad. Our village was burned to the ground. Those who managed to survive were forced to flee. I left-because of the war.”

Even here, we are successfully distracted. M. Gustave abandons his comical pose and becomes genuinely sympathetic and apologetic, but then they move on to their madcap escape. We are happily distracted, watching the exciting antics. Jopling and the dynamic duo of Gustave and Zero chase each other up and down snowy mountains, culminating in a harrowing scene in which Jopling stands over Gustave, who is hanging by his fingers at the edge of a cliff. Zero comes seemingly from nowhere to push Jopling over the edge and save his mentor. There is a scene in the hotel with bullets flying back and forth in oddly comic fashion. And finally there is the discovery of Madame’s last will, leaving everything to Gustave.

But the film’s true dynamic artistry comes at the end, in a series of scenes that both provoke images of trauma and help us defend against them in a pattern that presents them in a disordered manner that keeps them just out of consciousness, much like the defensive structure of a good dream.

Once again Zero and M. Gustave are on a train, this time accompanied by Zero’s girl- friend, Agatha. Throughout the film, in light form, we have observed this love affair between two poor innocents in the midst of the tumultuous events surrounding them.

The older version of Zero Moustafa tells us in a voice over: “On the first day of the occupation, the morning the independent state of Zubrowka officially ceased to exist, we traveled with M. Gustave to Lutz.”

They toast with wine while M. Gustave tells them about his own humble beginnings. It looks like a happy ending. But in a reprise of the earlier scene, the train suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere with tanks and soldiers in black uniforms seen through the window.

Once again, the soldiers enter the compartment and ask for papers. Seeing special papers that had been written for Zero, unfortunately by the officer of the now defeated army, the chief officer tears them up. This leads to a scuffle, in which Gustave is taken away by the soldiers, angrily throwing epithets at them.

We hear another voice-over from Moustafa, echoing Gustave’s words, “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. … He was one of them. What more is there to say?”

“He was one of them.” In this context, it suggests a second meaning. Gustave was one of them, one of the many victims.

As we move up to the young author and the older Zero sitting in the dining room of the dying hotel, the author asks,

“What happened in the end?

Zero Moustafa answers, shrugging, “In the end, they shot him. (Pause.) So it all went to me.”

He goes on to explain that he kept the hotel not for the memory of M. Gustave. “No, I don’t think so. You see, we shared a vocation. It wouldn’t have been necessary. He’s always with me. (Pause.) No, the hotel – I keep for Agatha. … We were happy here. For a little while.”

This set of scenes is more suggestive of the underlying horror, but it is still disguised. Once again, the film has successfully planted the seeds of the disturbing content just out of reach. It is before the scene in the train, before we learn that Gustave has been shot, at a point when it is poignant but not so pointed, in a coda, an add-on to a comment about Gustave’s fate, that we learn about Agatha. By breaking up the pieces of the story, the film allows us to ignore the magnitude and full meaning of the tragedy.

Moustafa: “He did not succeed, however, in growing old—nor did my darling Agatha. She and our infant son would be killed two years later by the Prussian grippe (pronounced almost like “group”). An absurd little disease. Today, we treat it in a single week; but, in those days, many millions died.”

Many millions, indeed, died of “the Prussian grippe.” It is told in an off-handed manner before the scene in the train car, with the reassurance that “today we treat it in a single week.” It carries the weight of his grief, but also disguises the grief and tragedy of a survivor of a series of events that were not fictional and certainly not amusing. We are reminded here of our introduction to Zero Moustafa: “A small, elderly man, smartly dressed, with an exceptionally lively, intelligent face, and an immediately perceptible air of sadness. He was, like the rest of us, alone, but also, I must say, he was the first that struck one as being deeply and truly lonely.” I have added the italics. We learn by the end of the film that our hero, Zero Moustafa, is a lone and lonely survivor of world events that affected millions, events that the film evokes mostly at an unconscious level, while granting us permission to focus our attention on the concerns and pleasures of our private lives without dwelling on the terrible things happening in the world around us; and, by doing so, allows us to feel very good, if only for a time. Such is the magic of artistic creativity.

Anderson, Wes (2014) The Grand Budapest Hotel: The Illustrated Screenplay (Opus Screenplay) (Kindle Locations 112-114). Opus Books. Kindle Edition.

Freud, S. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IV (1900).

Schur, M. (1972) Freud: Living and Dying. New York, IUP.


  1. I was reminded of Freud’s (1900) dream of Irma’s injection in which both he and, later, Max Schur (1972) found evidence of denial of disturbing thoughts and memories.


Original Publication in the PANY Bulletin Fall, 2014 52:3.














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