In Alfred Hitchcock's (1938) The Lady Vanishes], the moment when the train is stopped in the countryside by armed fascists is the moment of revelation and clarity: all becomes clear, the adversaries reveal themselves, and the proper action heroics can begin.
In Wes Anderson's (2014) The Grand Budapest Hotel, the first moment when the train is stopped in the countryside by armed authoritarians is one of suspense broken by comic-opera comedy. Just as the militia have determined that the young Zero Moustafa's papers are not in order are going to pull him off of the train and take him away to an unknown fate, it turns out that their leader--Captain Albert Henckels-Bergersdorfer--is the same Little Albert to whom Zero's patron M. Gustave was "very kind" when as a lonely little boy he stayed with his parents at the Grand Budapest Hotel in Nebelsbad, Zubrowka: READ MOAR
Interior train compartment: scene in progress: Zero and M. Gustave:
M. GUSTAVE: When you’re young, it’s all filet steak, but as the years go by, you have to move onto the cheaper cuts – which is fine with me, because I like those. More flavorful, or so they say. (Shrugs.) Why are we stopping at a barley field?
The train has, in fact, come to a halt in the middle of nowhere. Noises echo from the other end of the coach: a door slams open; loud voices argue; heavy footsteps approach. Three soldiers appear in the compartment doorway. They are stocky, thick-necked, and armed with carbine rifles. They wear grey uniforms and long coats. M. Gustave says with an air of ‘fancy-meeting-you-here’:
M. GUSTAVE: Well, hello there, chaps.
SOLDIER 1: (blankly) Documents, please.
M. GUSTAVE: With pleasure.
M. Gustave withdraws his passport from his coat pocket and presents it to the soldier. The soldier begins to flip through it. M. Gustave gestures toward the photograph of himself:
M. GUSTAVE: It’s not a very flattering portrait, I’m afraid. I was once considered a great beauty.
The soldier ignores this comment. M. Gustave peers at the breast pocket of his uniform. Insert: A name tag pinned below a military badge. It reads: ‘Cpl. F. Miller’. M. Gustave raises an eyebrow and asks pointedly:
M. GUSTAVE: What’s the ‘F’ stand for? Fritz? Franz?
SOLDIER 1: (hesitates) Franz.
M. GUSTAVE: (exceedingly pleased) I knew it!
The soldier returns the passport to M. Gustave and looks to Zero. Zero nervously hands him a creased and tattered little scrap of paper covered with stamps and seals. The soldier frowns and studies it. M. Gustave smiles, uneasy, and says lightly:
M. GUSTAVE: He’s making a funny face. (To the soldier.) That’s a Migratory Visa with Stage Three Worker Status, Franz, darling. He’s with me.
The soldier shows the scrap of paper to his associates. They confer rapidly at a whisper. There is some debate. Finally, the soldier waves for Zero to follow him:
SOLDIER 1: Come outside, please.
Zero swallows hard and begins to rise – but M. Gustave motions sharply for him to stop. He says, a bit stern:
M. GUSTAVE: Now wait a minute. (To Zero.) Sit down, Zero. (To the soldiers.) His papers are in order. I cross-referenced them myself with the Bureau of Labor and Servitude. You can’t arrest him simply because he’s a bloody immigrant. He hasn’t done anything wrong.
The soldier hesitates. He turns to his associates again. They look back at him, expressionless. The soldier grabs Zero by the arm and jerks him out of his seat. M. Gustave is instantly on his feet, tussling.
M. GUSTAVE: Stop it! Stop, damn you!
ZERO: (in disbelief) Never mind, M. Gustave! Let them proceed!
M. Gustave is slammed and held against one wall while Zero is pounded into another. M. Gustave shouts and struggles.
M. GUSTAVE: What are you doing? That hurts!
In two seconds: both M. Gustave and Zero are locked in handcuffs with their arms behind their backs. At this point, M. Gustave explodes:
M. GUSTAVE: You filthy, goddamn, pock-marked, fascist assholes! (In a pure rage.) Take your hands off my lobby boy!
M. Gustave and Zero lock eyes across the fracas. In an instant: they are brothers. A new voice shouts from the end of the corridor:
HENCKELS: (out of shot) What’s the problem?
All the soldiers snap to attention as a young officer appears in the doorway. He is well-groomed and clean-shaven. He wears a dress-grey uniform with a cape. He is Henckels. The first soldier hands him the scrap of paper and starts to explain the situation – but M. Gustave interrupts calmly with blood trickling from his nose:
M. GUSTAVE: This is outrageous. The young man works for me at the Grand Budapest Hotel in Nebelsbad.
Henckels turns suddenly to M. Gustave. He stares. He says in a quiet voice:
HENCKELS: M. Gustave?
M. Gustave looks at Henckels, curious. He nods slowly.
HENCKELS: My name is Henckels. I’m the son of Dr. and Mrs. Wolfgang Henckels-Bergersdorfer. Do you remember me?
M. GUSTAVE: I know exactly who you are. It’s uncanny. You’re little Albert.
HENCKELS: I’m terribly embarrassed. (To the soldiers.) Release them.
The soldiers immediately remove the handcuffs from both M. Gustave and Zero while Henckels takes out a notebook and begins to scribble something on a yellow ticket. M. Gustave sits down and presses his pink handkerchief to his nostril. Henckels says as he writes:
HENCKELS: Your colleague is stateless. He’ll need to apply for a revised Special Transit Permit, which, honestly, at this point, may be very difficult to acquire. Take this.
Henckels finishes writing, tears the ticket out of his notebook, and hands it to M. Gustave.
HENCKELS: It’s temporary, but it’s the best I can offer, I’m afraid.
M. GUSTAVE: How’s your wonderful mother?
HENCKELS: Very well, thank you.
M. GUSTAVE: I adore her. Send my love.
HENCKELS: I will.
Henckels motions politely for Zero to return to his seat and hands the scrap of paper back to him. Zero tucks it carefully into an envelope. His hands are shaking. Henckels says gently:
HENCKELS: Your companion was very kind to me when I was a lonely little boy. (To both M. Gustave and Zero.) My men and I apologize for disturbing you.
Henckels turns coldly to the first soldier. He looks sheepish. He says, robotic, to M. Gustave:
SOLDIER 1: I beg your pardon, sir.
Henckels and the soldiers immediately leave the compartment, march down the corridor, and exit the coach. Silence.
M. GUSTAVE: You see? There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant – (Sighs deeply.) Oh, fuck it.
M. Gustave looks out the window as the train begins to move again. Zero appears to be in a state of numb shock.
The Belle Epoque Zubrowka in which M. Gustave lives--or, rather, tries to create, or maintain, or recreate--is poor, authoritarian, unequal, and hierarchical, yes. It is populated by deceptive villains like Dmitri des Goffes und Taxis and brutal villains like Jopling. But there are bonds of civilization--of courtesy--that run every which way, up and down and across the social hierarchy. And to these bonds rights, privileges, and duties attach. In such a society of estates the social network can be worked to cushion and outmaneuver brutality--to a degree. And at the climax of the main plot Captain Albert J. Henckels-Bergersdorfer turns out to be an uncorrupt officer interested in doing his job and in doing justice: in finding the murderer of the Dowager Countess des Goffes und Taxis and in properly recording her second will that bequeathes her wealth to M. Gustave.
The first train-stopping sequence in Grand Budapest Hotel is thus not a moment of clarity and revelation, in which masks are dropped and sides are definitively chosen so that action heroics can begin, but rather a moment in which sides are muddled and the extent of Messrs. Gustav's powers of civilization and courtesy inside the society of estates are unexpectedly illuminated.
But then, soon thereafter, with the main plot concluded, comes the second scene in which the train is stopped in the countryside by armed fascists--the scene that turns *The Grand Budapest Hotel from a dark screwball cozy-catastrophe comedy into a full-fledged tragedy:
Interior train compartment: scene in progress: Agatha, Zero, and M. Gustave:
ZERO: Don’t flirt with her. (Suddenly.) Why are we stopping at a barley field again?
The train has, in fact, again come to a halt in the middle of nowhere – but, this time, outside the window, there are tanks, trucks, and a hundred soldiers in black uniforms with long coats. M. Gustave, Zero, and Agatha stare out at them, uneasy.
M. GUSTAVE: I find these black uniforms very drab. I suppose they’re meant to frighten people, but –
Three soldiers appear in the compartment doorway. They are stocky, thick-necked, and armed with carbine rifles. M. Gustave says with his usual air of fancy-meeting-you-here:
M. GUSTAVE: Well, hello there, chaps. We were just talking about you.
SOLDIER 1: (blankly) Documents, please.
M. GUSTAVE: With pleasure – as always.
M. Gustave and Agatha withdraw their passports and present them to the soldier. The soldier flips through them.
M. GUSTAVE: You’re the first of the enemy forces to whom we’ve been formally introduced. How do you do?
The soldier ignores this comment. He returns the passports to M. Gustave and Agatha and looks to Zero. Zero nervously hands him his little scrap of paper. The soldier frowns and studies it. M. Gustave smiles. He says lightly:
M. GUSTAVE: Plus ça change, am I right? (To the soldier.) That’s a Migratory Visa with Stage Three Worker Status, darling. Read this. M. Gustave hands the soldier Henckels’ special document.
The soldier shows it to his associates. They confer rapidly at a whisper. There is some debate. Before M. Gustave can work his magic – the soldier rips the special document to shreds. Pause. M. Gustave looks to Zero. Zero and Agatha are both stunned and frightened. M. Gustave seems to smile very slightly, reassuring them, and somehow sends a sincere, private message:
M. GUSTAVE: Good luck.
M. Gustave’s jaw hardens. He pegs his glass of wine at the soldier, shattering it, and explodes:
M. GUSTAVE: You filthy, goddamn, pock-marked, fascist assholes!
M. Gustave is instantly on his feet, tussling. Zero jumps up to intervene, trying to calm everyone down – and is immediately bashed in the face with the stock of a rifle and dropped to the floor, out cold. M. Gustave shouts and struggles. Agatha screams.
MR. MOUSTAFA: (voice-over) There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.
INT. CORRIDOR. DAY The three soldiers whisk M. Gustave, now in handcuffs, out of the compartment and manhandle him down the length of the coach while he shouts furiously, berating them:
M. GUSTAVE I give you my word: I’ll see all three of you dishonorably discharged, locked-up in the stockade, and hanged by sundown! (Screaming in rage.) Where is your commanding officer?
Cut to: Zero with his head out the window of the once-again speeding train. A significant volume of blood runs from his forehead around his eye and down into his shirt collar, soaked deep red. He clutches his little scrap of paper in his fist. The wind rustles against his neck. His mouth is open. His face is frozen. Tears stream down his cheeks.
MR. MOUSTAFA: (voice-over, re: ‘glimmers of civilization’) He was one of them. What more is there to say?
Agatha, also in tears, pulls Zero back inside.
Cut to: The dining room. Mr. Moustafa and the author sit in front of their desserts: Courtesans au chocolat. They are the last remaining guests in the giant restaurant. A waiter sets places for breakfast at tables in the background. Two glasses of sweet wine are served. Mr. Moustafa and the author sip them. The author asks gently:
AUTHOR: What happened in the end?
MR. MOUSTAFA: (shrugs) In the end, they shot him. (Pause.) So it all went to me.
Mr. Moustafa smiles sadly. He and the author begin to eat their confections in silence. They appear to enjoy them very much.
And later on:
MR. MOUSTAFA: (sadly) To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it--but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with marvelous grace...
The first train-stopping happens in the world of the Habsburg, Romanov, and Hohenzollern authoritarian society of estates empires--organizations that still saw themselves as in some part pieces of civilization. The second train-stopping happens in the world of the Nazis and the Bolsheviks and all their little society of the mass cousins--Iron Guards and Fascisti and Trotskyites and Makhnovians and so on: organizations that saw no duties, no reciprocal obligations, no civilization, no courtesy, but only power, authority, and brutality. And such a world in which the society of estates has been replaced by the society of the mass, M. Gustave's skills--civilization, courtesy, wit, and the ability to exploit the personal ties of societies network are of no value. All he can do is to distract the attention of the thugs from his friends, and so die like a man. And he does.
CODA: So after I finished drafting this, I ran across David Denby in The New Yorker:
At his most derivative, Anderson throws in a variant of a famous scene in Hitchcock's espionage thriller "The Lady Vanishes" in which armed, uniformed Fascists gather outside a stopped train. "Budapest Hotel" takes off in a general way from the writings of Stefan Zweig, who committed suicide in 1942, believing that European culture had been destroyed by Nazism. But Anderson doesn't appear to know what tone he's trying for with his intimations of disaster. The thugs beat people up, but their leader, Edward Norton [Henckels], wearing a tall military cape and waving his long fingers, seems to have stepped out of a comic opera...
And I think: The Grand Budapest Hotel cost $100 million to make--that's 2000 person-years of labor in total.
Shouldn't The New Yorker's film critic have paid enough attention to the film to recognize that the train-stopping sequences are not derivative from The Lady Vanishes--indeed they are the opposite: they use echoes of The Lady Vanishes to set up expectations of tension, suspense, and resolution that they then immediately betray?
Shouldn't The New Yorker's film critic have paid enough attention to the film to realize that there are three groups of thugs: the comic-opera Austro-Hungarian society of estates authorities of Albert J. Henckels-Bergersdorfer, the young Dmitri des Goffes und Taxis and his henchman Jopling--whom the Austro-Hungarian authorities eventually squelch--and the totalitarian Nazi-Bolsheviks who ultimately kill M. Gustave? Shouldn't The New Yorker's film critic notice that Anderson knows exactly what tone he is trying for, and that it is not a misstep but rather one of the major points of the movie--as well as of Stefan Zweig's oeuvre--that Albert J. Henckels-Bergersdorfer has not stepped out of but is in fact himself in a comic opera? If The New Yorker wants to remain a kind of central intellectual watering hole, shouldn't it ask its reviewers to have some depth on the movies they review--to read Bloodlands and The Society of the Crossed Keys, or at least to find some latter-day Edmund Wilson and take him or her to the movie, and then talk about it afterwards?
The Lady Vanishes: 1:18:45 ff.
GILBERT: Look out of the window. This train's been diverted to a branch line.
TODHUNTER: What are you talking about?
GILBERT: There's been...
TODHUNTER: Abductions, diverted trains...
IRIS: We're telling the truth.
TODHUNTER: I'm not in the least interested. You've annoyed us long enough with your ridiculous stories.
CHARTERS: You've got hold of the wrong end of the stick. These things don't happen.
MISS FROY: We're not in England now.
CHARTERS: I don't see what difference that makes.
IRIS: We're stopping.
GILBERT: You see those cars? They're here to take Miss Froy away.
TODHUNTER: Nonsense. Look. There go a couple of people. The cars have obviously come to pick them up.
GILBERT: In that case then why go to the trouble of uncoupling the train and diverting it?
GILBERT: There's no train beyond the sleeping car.
DINER: There must be. Our bags are in the First Class carriage.
GILBERT: Not any longer. Would you like to take a look?
DINER 2: If this is a practical joke, I warn you I shan't think it very funny. Good Lord!
VOICE: Bring some brandy.
DINER 3; You don't suppose there's something in this fellow's story, Caldicott?
CALDICOTT: Seems a bit queer.
DINER 3: After all, people don't go about tying up nuns.
IRIS: Someone's coming.
DINER 4: They can't possibly do anything to us. We're British subjects.
OFFICER: I have come to offer sincere apologies. An extremely serious incident has occurred. An attempt has been made to interfere with passengers on this train. Fortunately it was brought to the notice of the authorities. lf you will be good enough to accompany me to Morsken, I will inform the British embassy at once. Ladies and gentlemen, the cars are at your disposal...