Nazis, suicide and the Jew behind ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

February 17, 2015

The Grand Budapest hotel is nestled into a snow-capped mountain dreamscape — a painterly paradise in the former republic of the fictional Zubrowka, which was once, we are told, “the seat of an empire.” It is a world awash in color, crazy characters and an antiquated glamour born of a longing for the past. And filmmaker Wes Anderson readily admits he “stole” it from Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig.   

“Two characters in our story are vaguely meant to represent Zweig himself,” Anderson told British publication The Telegraph in March of last year. “In fact, the main character, who is played by Ralph Fiennes, is modeled significantly on Zweig, as well.”

Anderson is fond of crediting Zweig as the progenitor of his Oscar-nominated film (it received nine nominations, including nods for best picture, directing and original screenplay). Both the setting and the story were inspired by Zweig’s body of work — “The Post Office Girl” and “Beware of Pity” in particular — but also, more significantly, by the historical contours of Zweig’s life. 

Set in the 1930s, the beautiful, baroque world evoked in the film, at once dreamy and dark, is an endangered one, a last glimmer of opulent Europe before Hitler destroyed it. The film’s cherished fairytale of grand hotels, luxury, leisure and sought-after escape is a portrait of a doomed world. And it parallels the trajectory of Zweig’s own experience as he went from wildly successful, famous writer to alienated outcast; a man in exile from his home, his mother tongue and his cherished society.

Born in 1881 to a well-to-do Viennese-Jewish family, Zweig enjoyed all the freedom, glamour and flexibility wealth could afford. His father was a textile manufacturer, and his mother came from a prominent Italian-Jewish family of bankers. This allowed him unmitigated freedom to pursue his passions; as a student, Zweig began submitting poems and essays to a literary journal and amassing a collection of important manuscripts. Later on, he would find himself in possession of a prestigious collection of rare artifacts that included Goethe manuscripts, handwritten Mozart compositions and Beethoven’s writing desk (in 1933, according to The New Yorker, he also purchased a 13-page manuscript of a speech by Hitler). Perhaps these items suggested to him the possibilities of great art, and served to fuel his ambition. 

His career was undoubtedly a successful one. Zweig earned international renown as a biographer, novelist, playwright, essayist and librettist. According to The New Yorker, “he was the most translated writer in Europe” throughout the 1920s and ’30s, his work appearing in nearly 50 languages. And yet, Zweig was not considered as “literary” a writer as his contemporaries — authors and intellectuals such as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Arendt and Joseph Roth, for instance (the last of whom he mentored quite devotedly). But he was far more popular and produced a prolific amount of plot-driven work that was well suited for Hollywood. His novel “Fear” was produced as a movie three different times — in 1928, 1936 and 1954, including one version starring Ingrid Bergman — and the 1948 film “Letter from an Unknown Woman” is based on another of his novels. 

“In Zweig we are in the brooding, highly urbane Central European universe where sepulchral obsessions and the shady regions of the soul can only be glimpsed and not examined, much less explained, and where redemption is seldom given or earned,” scholar André Aciman writes in his introduction to Zweig’s “Journey Into the Past.” Zweig “is the master of hidden impulses, of passionate excesses … of desires that run amuck.”

In recent years, Zweig’s work has been experiencing a cultural resurgence, with new translations of his writing trickling back into print as well as a stream of cinematic interpretations finding their way to the screen. The 2013 film “A Promise” was based on “Journey Into the Past,” and George Prochnik’s acclaimed biography, “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World” received the 2014 National Jewish Book Award. 

Zweig’s romantic allure within the cultural pantheon stems from his belonging so inextricably to the past. While other Jewish writers saw war and fascism degrading Europe and promptly left, Zweig resisted. His Austrian passport, the New York Review of Books noted, enabled him to travel freely between the U.S., South America and Europe until the Anschluss in 1938. So while fellow Jewish intellectuals permanently fled around 1933 — upon Hitler’s rise to power — Zweig clung to his European lifestyle as long as he could. Still, eventually he had to leave: In 1934, Zweig left Austria for England, hoping the war would not escalate. Next he went to New York, which he frankly didn’t like. And by the time his books had been thoroughly maligned and banned in Europe, he finally capitulated and went into exile in Brazil. 

It was there, along with his second wife, Lotte (formerly his secretary, 30 years his junior, whom his first wife appointed), that Zweig and his beloved ingested a fatal dose of Veronal in a dramatic double-suicide worthy of cinema. In his suicide note, he complained of “my own language having disappeared from me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.” He confessed he didn’t have the energy within him to “make a new beginning.” Everything he loved, everything he cherished, the urbane, borderless Europe that once afforded so many pleasures and treasured experiences, ceased to exist.

As sometimes happens, Zweig’s suicide heightened his fame as never before, with The New York Times reporting his death on its front page. But to this day, many still puzzle over why Zweig killed himself: Had he not been spared the horrors of the Holocaust? Had he not possessed means and talent, friendship and love? A day before his death, he had completed the second of two major new works. So what was it, exactly, that Zweig couldn’t handle?

Fellow writers were brutal in criticizing Zweig’s political cowardice. “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph,” Mann said of Zweig’s suicide. “And had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.” In reviewing his memoir, “The World of Yesterday,” Arendt accused Zweig of being blind to the political realities of his time and slammed him for his “unpolitical point of view” concerned only for his own fame. But where Zweig’s contemporaries found solace in intellectual and political resistance, Zweig, ever the ardent pacifist, found himself at a loss. “I would never speak against Germany. I would never speak against any country,” he said, excusing his silence as a byproduct of temperament. “I am a man who prizes nothing more highly than peace and quiet.”

There was no peace, though, for Zweig in exile. “I ceased to feel as if I quite belonged to myself,” he wrote in his memoir. “A part of the natural identity with my original and essential ego was destroyed forever.” In other words, the urbane, sophisticated, secular Jew who prized the freedom to travel anywhere and belong everywhere — but who, notably, rejected Zionism — in the end, found himself an estranged citizen, a wandering Jew.

At the conclusion of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” there is a telling scene between the present owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and a young writer (Jude Law). After Moustafa shares the story of the hotel, recalling its glory days and the legendary concierge Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes and based on Zweig), who was shot by German authorities during the war, Moustafa offers a kind of elegy for that lost world, and the artistic soul decimated by it: “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left over in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity — he was one of them.”  

When the young writer asks if Moustafa keeps the Grand Budapest, now dilapidated and empty, to honor a “lost connection to a banished world — his world,” Moustafa answers with a sad lament. He is talking, of course, about Zweig: 

“To be frank,” he tells the young writer, “I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say, he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”  

Like the fantasy of Zion restored, the world Zweig so ardently longed for was the world of his own imagination. The writer in him yearned for the world as it ought to be, but the Jew in him was forced to live in the world as it was — broken, bitter, emptied out of the 6 million souls just like him who once lived at the heights and ended in smoke. 

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