One of the most crucial aspects of a film is its setting – the time period and the location can have such a huge impact on a film’s story and characters. If films play to an audience’s knowledge of the location and time period, like let’s say the United States in the 1940s, it can become easier for audiences to believe that the film’s events could actually happen. It allows for the “suspension of disbelief” with the audiences. With films that rely on a completely fictional location, it has to work even harder to achieve that suspension.
Director Wes Anderson has become somewhat of an independent film darling over the past decade. His films have a unique aesthetic that viewers instantly recognize as his style; his shots are framed immaculately, with something interesting in every part of the frame, and are symmetrical. His characters are quirky, almost verging on “hipster-like,” and the plots of his films have simple premises (like childhood love at a summer camp or a submarine voyage). However, Anderson has received praise for how he builds his fictional worlds, the most prominent being in his 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson created the elaborate, fictional country of Zubrowka. The country looks like a combination of every older mainland European country, drawing heavily from the architecture in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Austria (some of which are the part of the film’s filming locations). There are little nods to their famous cities throughout the film – concierge keys alluding to the padlocks on Prague’s Charles Bridge and the hotel’s funicular and Roman baths acknowledging their famous counterparts in Budapest being the most obvious examples. The film is heavily inspired by the cultures of these countries (especially their love of aesthetically pleasing pastries in cafes), but is also inspired by the roles that these countries had during the 1930s and leading into World War II. There is a war happening in the film but is never truly explored – the actual events of the film are more focused on while the war is happening in the background, slowly gaining more influence over the film’s events towards the end. The soldiers’ insignia bears an uncanny resemblance to the Nazi symbol, the soldiers operate the borders of Zubrowska and murder anyone who doesn’t have the correct paperwork, one of the headlines of a local newspaper early in the film mentions an ongoing monarchy crisis that is glossed over – events all too familiar to those who studied the rise of fascism and World War II. With these allusions to somewhat recent history, it gives the audience some sense of familiarity, like these events could have actually happened in a country that they know of.
Because of the familiarity that Anderson builds, he is then able to add layers of detail into each part of the film, specifically in the way its story unfolds. The film is shot as a story told within a story….told within another story. It relies on information told by these characters as a form of oral storytelling, one of the earliest ways of relaying information. The idea of using oral storytelling to add depth to a film is an interesting concept, especially because many people, when telling a story, like to add in little details and context to help paint a clearer picture to our audience. Anderson emphasizes the storytelling in the film by physically showing these details to the viewer, quickly cutting to the object in question as the narrator, typically an older Zero (F. Murray Abraham), mentions it. This method further builds up the credibility of this world by treating it as a story that we hear passed down from our older relatives – we tend to treat those stories as fact, so why wouldn’t we believe that this world of Zubrowska is real?
With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson is able to transport the audience into the country of Zubrowska. It feels real to us because of the familiarity of the events and the way that the story is told, like it truly is a part of history. Because of how fleshed-out he has made this world, the audience is able to sit back and fully focus and escape into the events of the film.