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Consider for a moment the grand hotel safe. Like aliens, time travel, and expensive European tourist towns, they exist for most of us only in movies. They are the keepers of the secrets of the fashionable, the ill-gotten goods and briefly handled dreams of people much prettier than you and I.
For instance, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave H., Ralph Fiennes’ thickly perfumed concierge, reaches towards the high-perched safe, where his treasured Boy With Apple is nested. Or there is the lovely shot in Ernst Lubitsch’s comic masterpiece Ninotchka, where Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, giddy with love and champagne, flirt over a countess’s priceless jewels, their faces perfectly framed by the hotel safe. Masterfully, Lubitsch places his camera inside the safe itself, where it—where we, really—are both safe and precarious, hovering above the gemstones Garbo calls “the tears of Russia.”
Of course, “The Lubitsch Touch” is all over Wes Anderson’s art house phenom. (Months later, Hollywood mouths are still agape over Budapest’s $200,000 per screen average opening weekend). There are bits and pieces of Lubitsch classics sprinkled through every nook and cranny of the Grand Budapest, from The Little Shop Around the Corner to To Be Or Not To Be to Heaven Can Wait. But it is Ninotchka, perhaps the most undervalued of 1939’s all-star team of wonder films, whose presence is most keenly felt.
Both films are ostensibly hotel caper comedies, a genre rare but elastic enough to include movies as varied as The Grand Hotel, Barton Fink, and Dunston Checks In. Both marvel inside the music-box interiors of their settings: Lubitsch’s first shot inside the Hotel Clarence is a gliding push into the lobby, a technique Anderson takes to dizzying heights in The Grand Budapest. Both directors luxuriate over, and never cease to find folly in, the gildings of a world that’s ceasing to exist, and perhaps never existed in the first place. Like Anderson, Lubitisch shapes private worlds born out of his own romantic longing and sense of loss.
But whereas Anderson continues to aim for the wistful, whimsical melancholy he’s known for, Lubisch’s target is societal and political— it’s why his movie retains so much of its bite since first delighting audiences and pissing off Bolsheviks 75 years ago. His secret weapon is his team of screenwriters, most notably Billy Wilder, a Lubitsch protege who helps lace the film with every kind of barb imaginable and allowable at the time. “A Russian? I love Russians!” Douglas’s society lawyer exclaims after meeting Garbo’s steely Stalinist. “Comrade, I’ve been fascinated by your five-year-plan for the last 15 years.”
While the film is remembered as anti-Communist, in truth Lubitsch and Wilder’s rapiers slash in all directions, making short work of society mores as they do Soviet doctrine, which really serves as a delicious way to keep our fated lovers’ passions at bay. “What kind of girl are you?” asks Douglas, the object of his lust melting just a little. “Just the kind you see,” says Garbo. “A tiny cog in the great wheel of evolution.” Imagine if Julia Roberts had said such a thing to Hugh Grant in Notting Hill? Needless to say, the ’90s would have been a lot more interesting.
One of the many delights of The Grand Budapest Hotel is how adroit Ralph Fiennes, lead actor of an almost countless ensemble, is at farce. Still, it’s hard to imagine the film being marketed as “Fiennes Laughs!” the way that Ninotchka famously was for Garbo. And oh what a laugh it was, a wonderful bit of naturalism made spectacular by the way it’s set up in the film and changes its direction. There are few moments as touchingly human as when Garbo finally capitulates to Douglas’ corny jokes. This is a moment of pure, concentrated cinematic joy. Keep it safe.