In Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, the moments of absurdity are essential to understanding the humanity of the story and how our relationships with others are what defines our lives. Anderson is sure to never spend too long on one tragic moment alone and tends to bundle emotion, comedy, and danger together in a scene. These moments of comedy act as a device to distance the viewer from the dark realities of the story and are key to making the film enjoyable instead of altogether sad.

From the moment the film starts, we are distanced from the story. We see a young girl visit a tribute to the author of our tale, who then discusses the true story of his book as it was told to him by Zero in his later years. We are quickly aware of the lenses we are seeing the story through and the fact that it is a story. It is through the form of a story that we can pay attention to the greater themes that are discussed about the world and the relationships that develop.

When Gustave receives news of Madame D., he immediately heads off to the funeral, and abruptly takes Zero with him. “We must go to her.” “We must?” “She needs me, and I need you to help me with my bags and so on.” Although this is the way in which he asks Zero to go with him and has him pack wine and his bag for him, it becomes clear that Gustave wants to have someone by his side. Like Zero, Gustave is alone in this world and has no one else that he would trust to go with him. Gustave clearly feels a strong bond with Zero early on and treats him as a friend once they are outside the hotel, but Zero does not feel that same way immediately. Gustave pours him wine (which Zero does not drink) and plans that if things were to go south, they should run away together. Gustave even chooses Zero as his heir to his estate when he is gone. Zero is the closest thing that Gustave has to family and the hotel is the closest thing either of them has to a home. He admits to Zero (on Madame D’s death), “I blame myself. She tried to warn me…but I didn’t listen…There’s really no point to doing anything in life because it’s all gone in the blink of an eye.” This is a truly dreary perspective from Gustave that he counters with telling Zero how good she was in bed. They are then interrupted by the militiamen who enter the train and who Gustave tries to charm and joke with as he would with anyone else, to no avail. After they are assaulted when Zero’s papers are not in order, it is Gustave’s charm after all that saved them. Heckels telling Zero, “Your companion was very kind to me when I was just a lonely little boy,” showing Zero how, while his charms do not always work, Gustave can make a difference in people’s lives by treating them with care and respect. It is through their performance of careful care as hotel employees that they are both detached and closer than anyone else, and, by sharing this secret, Zero allows Gustave to be the closest thing to “real” that is possible.

When Gustave is arrested and in prison, he continues his role as concierge. Anderson highlights this role with the comedic lines of Gustave as he rolls his food cart past each of the cells, offering slop like it is fine cuisine; even salting it for a prisoner. He’s surrounded by hardened criminals and fighting, yet all he wants to do is make life as good for these people as he possibly can. He has Mendl’s smuggled in and shares it with his fellow prisoners, the group including Pinky who he got in an altercation with early on, the altercation itself showing that Gustave can break his act of charm when it suits him and that his desire for control is stronger than his facade. The group has even discussed that he’s “a real straight fellow,” and, “one of us now.” Gustave is delighted and surprised, as he is probably not thanked in the same way for his services in the hotel, as well as the fact that he is just treating the prisoners the way he would anyone else, likely seeing them in a very similar light, saying that even, “The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved and they will open up like a flower.” Living for the hotel and acting as a concierge are Gustave’s sole purposes in life and are why he does not let go of his duties even while behind bars, giving letters to Zero to read on his behalf to take care of the hotel the way that he would, even giving poems to recite just as he would to remind them that he and the hotel are one in the same. Gustave’s idea to have the digging tools smuggled in with the pastries, that the guard cannot bear to destroy, acts as a metaphor for the charms and kindness of Gustave being the only way to combat the brutishness and bad in the world.
When Gustave escapes through the sewer with the prisoners and meets with Zero, he is quite the opposite of his charming self and is in the shoes of the concierge as a boss and not as a companion. Zero has no disguises for them, no safe house and has not brought a bottle of l’air de panache for Gustave to freshen up with. While not essential to their plan, these things were all included in how Gustave would have done them himself had he been in control. This lack of authority in the moment and his distance from the hotel trigger him to go off on Zero. He condemns him for coming to Zubrowska as an immigrant, saying that if he does not know how to act that they’d be better off if he went back to where he came from. When Zero rebuts with the story of how his father and family were killed and how the violence of the war caused him to leave, Gustave realizes the error of his ways and apologizes, “On behalf of the hotel… Don’t make excuses for me. I owe you my life. You are my dear friend and protégé and I am very proud of you.” What seems to be a very low point of Gustave’s character has a sudden redemption arc when he realizes that these material things don’t matter at all if he hadn’t had Zero to help him. This is the turning point for Gustave seeing Zero as a friend or brother and the only relationship that truly matters to him. This moment is essential to the later scene where Gustave officiates Zero and Agatha’s wedding as well as Gustave’s final moments in the train car where all three have become a family and would fight for each other.

In all, The Grand Budapest Hotel acts as a tale of light within the darkness. It shows how stories of individuals and their relationships can make dire times appear much brighter. Anderson uses the bonds of Zero and Gustave, and later the addition of Agatha, to present a realistic portrayal of how life goes on when tragedy occurs and that all you can do is laugh and try to make the best of your situation. Anderson carefully weaves in the exaggeration of comedic situations and actions with the grim reality of Gustave being framed, people being murdered, and the government falling to a new regime in just a way that makes you think about what you’re watching and makes you question why you feel the way you do. Anderson’s narrative works because, before the viewer even realizes it, they are shown loyalty, love, war, and loss and are told to face it just as the characters are, head-on.