Arts - Spring 2015

In Search of Mister Gustave

Who is the inspiration for the Grand Budapest’s concierge?

By Elena S. Danielson | March 4, 2015
Martin Scalin/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Everett Collection
Martin Scalin/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Everett Collection


The central figure in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, winner of this year’s Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, Musical, or Comedy and the recipient of nine Academy Award nominations, is the hotel’s concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. Played with great aplomb by Ralph Fiennes, Gustave is a genuinely appealing character, the epitome of Middle European charm and style. He recites syrupy Rilke-esque poetry while seeing to the needs of the hotel’s well-heeled guests—the men as well as the aging women who seek him out for certain discreet and salacious entertainments—who, in return, bestow extravagant gifts upon him.

But then one of these women, Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis—the aristocratic Madame D—is found dead under suspicious circumstances. At the reading of her will, Gustave is awarded possession of a rare and valuable painting called Boy with Apple, and the family becomes incensed. Madame D’s despicable son Dmitri accuses Gustave of being a con man who has preyed on the emotional neediness of an old woman, romancing her out of her fortune. Until this point, Anderson has clearly distinguished between the good guys and the bad (comforting, in this age of flawed heroes and general brutality). But if Gustave is indeed a swindler, does it matter? We all need our illusions. As the old saying goes, mundus vult decipi—the world wants to be deceived.

In the script, as well as in interviews, Anderson credits Stefan Zweig, the highly popular Austrian author of the interwar years, with providing the inspiration for M. Gustave in particular and for the movie’s themes more generally. There are some obvious similarities. Zweig began writing just before World War I, composing syrupy Rilke-esque poetry. He even befriended Rilke, that ethereal poet who worked in a castle placed at his disposal by the aristocratic Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis. Photos of Zweig could easily be mistaken for stills of Ralph Fiennes, right down to the immaculate tailoring and the slightly bemused Jack Benny stare. But are there other models for this character? About a year ago, in an attempt to locate the elusive Gustave, I began a reading marathon, intending to go through much of Zweig’s work, as well as many other Central European books from the interwar years.

A chapter in Zweig’s dazzling and puzzling memoir-cum-suicide-note, The World of Yesterday (1942), describes his stay in early 1900s Berlin, where he enjoyed the bohemian bonhomie of a circle of impoverished artists and writers, including an enchanting and famous con man who had served various stints in prison and who had also written his memoirs. Zweig says he was proud to shake the hand of this articulate and gracious criminal. He does not provide a name. He refers to him only by the term Hochstapler, a thief or low-class deceiver who smuggles himself into wealthy circles. Here was a start, I thought. One famous con man of the day was the suave hotel thief Georges Manolescu, much heralded by the Berlin press and the author of the picaresque 1905 memoir, The Prince of Thieves. Could he have been the man whose hand Zweig had shaken?

Still, I did not find any conniving concierges in Zweig’s mesmerizing short stories and novellas. Christine Hoflehner, the title character in The Post-Office Girl, learns to ape grand ways at a luxury resort, but the concierge there plays no important role. The gambler in 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman has such magnetic charm that a respectable woman is willing to surrender herself, her honor, and her fortune for him. No concierge. The anti-Fascist hero of Chess Story is imprisoned and subjected to psychological torture in a grand Viennese hotel turned into a Nazi prison. Again, no concierge. His work may include grand hotel settings, but as I learned from two biographies of the writer, by George Prochnik and Oliver Matuschek, Zweig did not particularly like grand hotels. Coming from a wealthy family, he had no need for illusions of grandeur, preferring small cozy spaces filled with books and manuscripts instead.

Yet the figure of the hotel con man recurs in many other works of the period. In Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, the thief is a pseudo-aristocratic hotel guest who falls for an émigrée Russian ballerina. And Thomas Mann’s last, unfinished novel, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, features a charming, happy-go-lucky swindler who starts out as a hotel elevator operator. (The wealthy hotel guests, he tells us, always pass up other elevator cars for the chance to ride in his.) Felix falls for one of his victims and admits that he has stolen her jewelry. The woman, far from becoming upset, is thrilled to play such a titillating game. “Du bist ein Dieb? Mais ça c’est suprême!” (“You are a thief? But that is superb!”) It turns out that she would have given him her jewels—if only he’d asked. Felix is eventually promoted to the position of waiter, ruling the grand spaces of the hotel like a lord in his manor. He does not go after vulnerable victims. They find him. And he is surprised and delighted by their generosity. Mann calls him a Hochstapler, as well.

At one point in the novel, the parents of a young aristocrat decide to send him on a world tour, thereby removing him from the hedonistic world of the Paris demimonde. The aristocrat would rather not go and swaps identities with Felix, who sets off on his travels, sending effusive and loving letters from various ports to the young man’s gullible mother. Exquisitely dressed and beautifully mannered, Felix fits into blue-blood society with ease, shedding his low-life background and assuming a refined bearing. (So much for heredity.)

Gustave, too, plays this part, effortlessly fitting into a world into which he was not born. So is Felix Krull a model for Anderson’s hotel concierge? Could Mann be as important an influence as Zweig? I have been running down leads for months, and the search could go on indefinitely. After all, the scholar Thomas Sprecher, who has analyzed Mann’s Felix Krull–related papers, has compiled a 50-page bibliography on con artists and gentlemen-criminals in modern European literature.

Mann was a bit of a con artist himself. Though he flunked out of school, he presented himself to the world as a learned and scholarly writer (something he did eventually become)—but one with a few tricks up his sleeve. He was a devoted husband and family man who had a squelched weakness for attractive waiters and adolescent boys (see Death in Venice). He was also deeply interested in the life of the Hochstapler Manolescu, whose memoir seems to have informed Felix Krull. And Mann, unlike Zweig, really did enjoy all the fine trappings of the grand hotels of his era. His snowy Magic Mountain sanatorium-resort has much the same atmosphere as the Grand Budapest Hotel.

As my year of binge reading comes to an end, I am remembering a few days I once spent in Budapest, at the Gellert Baths and Spa hotel, a huge old stone pile on a hill built during the World War I era of grand hotels. The Grand Budapest Hotel does not take place in Budapest and was filmed in Germany, but somehow the title fits. The Gellert had swimming pools at different temperatures, one with a wave machine. When I stayed there, the Habsburg-esque rooms still had remnants of later funky Communist-era furnishings and odd utilitarian accretions. I asked the concierge to book two adjacent rooms, one for my husband and me, and one for our teenage son. The concierge obliged with two enormous rooms on the top floor facing the Danube. Before dinner, we would lean out our respective stone-framed windows and chat as the lights came on along the bridges below.

I invited a few friends who lived in the city to dinner one night, and the concierge arranged for us a quiet outdoor rooftop table with a splendid view of the river and of the imaginative architecture on both the Buda and the Pest sides. As we ate, we engaged in wide-ranging highbrow discussion. I later learned that one of my friends was not quite as credentialed as he said he was, but I didn’t really care. The conversation was energizing. And I hope that the gracious, Old World concierge at the Gellert, who made that evening possible, has by now seen Anderson’s movie. Do they have Netflix in Budapest?

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