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George Prochnik: I thought your film did a beautiful job of transposing Stefan Zweig’s actual life into the dream life of his stories, and the stories into the fabric of his actual life. You showed how his own experiences had a fairy-tale dimension, confectionary and black by turns. I wondered if you could say anything about these qualities and how Zweig became an inspiration for you.
Wes Anderson: I had never heard of Zweig — or, if I had, only in the vaguest ways — until maybe six or seven years ago, something like that, when I just more or less by chance bought a copy of Beware of Pity. I loved this first book, and immediately there were dozens more in front of me that hadn’t been there before. They were all suddenly back in print. I also read the The Post Office Girl, which had been only published for the first time recently. The Grand Budapest Hotel has elements that were sort of stolen from both these books. Two characters in our story are vaguely meant to represent Zweig himself — our “Author” character, played by Tom Wilkinson, and the theoretically fictionalised version of himself, played by Jude Law. But, in fact, M. Gustave, the main character who is played by Ralph Fiennes, is modelled significantly on Zweig as well.
One thing that struck me, after I had read a few of Zweig’s books, is that what I began to learn about him personally was quite different from what I felt I understood about him from his voice as a writer. So much of his work is written from the point of view of someone who’s quite innocent and is entering into kind of darker territories, and I always felt that Zweig himself was a more reserved person who was exploring things in his work that he was drawn to but that weren’t his own experiences. In fact, the truth seems to be completely the opposite. He seems to be somebody who more or less tried everything along the way.
Prochnik: Zweig’s stories are always nesting stories within stories and confessional revelations of deep secrets within secrets. The way that your film seems to work on that grid of multiple overlapping and proliferating story lines was very striking.
Anderson: We see this over and over again in Zweig’s short stories. It’s a device that maybe is a bit old-fashioned — I feel it's the kind of thing we might expect to find in something by Conrad or Melville — where somebody meets an interesting, mysterious person and there’s a bit of a scene that unfolds with them before they eventually settle down to tell their whole tale, which then becomes the larger book or story we’re reading. I love that in Zweig — you describe it as confessional, and they do have that feeling, and they’re usually secret. One of his novellas is even called "Burning Secret". Anyway, that sort of technique is such an effective way to set the stage, to set a mood. It creates this kind of a “gather around” feeling.
Prochnik: In his memoir, The World of Yesterday, Zweig describes watching Rodin begin to touch up a sculpture he’s working on and forgetting that Zweig is even there in the studio with him. Zweig was fascinated by fascination—losing yourself in that way. I think when his fictions work you can feel him going after some kindred process.
Anderson: Like the state in which he worked. He liked absolute quiet and seclusion in his work — this was a particular issue for him — and I could see that need for silence tying into this. Think about the novella "Confusion". Zweig is both of the main characters there. Because I can see the student who kind of goes off the rails in Berlin and enters into this wild life as one aspect of Zweig’s experience; and then there’s the academic, who’s sort of distant, and whose relationship with his wife is full of secrets. I feel he’s represented in both these characters.
My experience of reading The World of Yesterday was full of the sense of surprising realities being disclosed. It was the thing that struck me the most. There were so many descriptions of parts of life, which — as much as we may have read or seen something of them in movies — we didn’t really know about from his time, before reading Zweig’s memoir. In particular I don’t think I ever thought about the moment when it became necessary to have a passport, which is hugely meaningful when you see it through his eyes. You suddenly see this control that comes in.
Prochnik: I think it was absolutely devastating for him — that loss of geographical freedom, the ability to just cross borders without thinking about it. I thought you also did a lovely job of depicting this transformation in the film, near the end, where you have the extraordinary scene in which your protagonists are stopped a final time on the train for their papers and it’s clear just how vital these documents have become — a matter of life and death.
Anderson: You can see why for Zweig this turn of events would be the beginning of everything that became too much to bear. Not only because he was someone who had friends all over Europe and collected people actively — made friendships and made these connections and so on. He also collected manuscripts and books and musical scores, and he was gathering things from all over — among artists he admired. And eventually all this, plus his own work, was taken away, destroyed, made impossible for him to continue pursuing in that way. And when you read The World of Yesterday you just see how all the things he invested his life in, this world that he prefers to call the world of security, this life that had been growing more and more refined and free that’s so meaningful to him, is just obliterated.
Prochnik:There were friends of Zweig who saw him as invested before the war in creating almost a cabinet of curiosities, a museum of Europe — one person described it as a garden — that would serve as a microcosm of the whole vast continent before it all got blown asunder.
Anderson: Vienna — the environment he grew up in was so — I guess, art was the centre of his own activity, and it was also the popular thing. One detail that I remember from The World of Yesterday is that the daily newspapers they got each morning had poetry and philosophical writings. He and his friends went to meet in cafés regularly in groups. And there were new plays continuously being produced, and they were all following these playwrights. Vienna was a place where there was this great deep culture, but it was the equivalent of rock stars — it was the coolest thing of the moment. It was completely popular, and that was Vienna. Zweig was living in the dead centre, ground zero place for this. And he was living there up to the point that it came to an end.
Prochnik: To go back to his fictions: when you said that Beware of Pity was really your introduction to Zweig — why did you find this work to be so compelling?
Anderson: As we discussed, the book takes a form that we sort of overtly lifted for our movie, and I particularly loved the opening scene. There’s a wonderful brief introduction from the author, and then it goes back some years, and we see the author who’s visiting a restaurant that he thought would have fallen out of fashion a long time ago, outside Vienna. But then he’s sort of surprised that he’s still seeing people he knows there and this figure — this guy comes over to him, a guy he knows vaguely. (This author character is well-known, he’s famous like Zweig.) And the guy who comes over to him he describes as the sort of person who knows everybody, at least a bit, and bounces around among people and table hops and name drops. It’s a very familiar sort of person today. You know immediately you can connect him to a few people who you might know and even like, but who do this.
Prochnik: I love the phrase that Zweig has for this type — which translates literally from the German as “Also-present”(“hanger-on” in translation).
Anderson: And the author character has this moment with him. He’s a little unhappy to see him — he wanted to be alone — but at the same time it’s not so bad, and now he has somebody to talk to. That whole set up to me is the best. First, it’s happening in a setting that is very interesting to me — this Vienna that is unfamiliar and exotic, and at the same time there’s so much that I do feel connected to: that it could be happening in some place like Manhattan today. There are the same kinds of people and dynamics we know from our world. But also details of a universe most of us have no experience of, and that’s great to discover. I remember being gripped by Zweig’s description of the cavalry unit that the lead character is a part of. There’s great detail about that whole way of life. But then we’re pulled into this story very, very quickly.
Prochnik: Yes, and it’s so surprising that the scenes in the introduction — in a restaurant and at a party where things feel very civilised and very social — the reader then discovers are happening in 1938. So it’s five years after Hitler has been appointed Chancellor, the same year as the annexation of Austria, and one year before everything goes completely to hell. With this whole book, Zweig manages to take the very personal story of a minor officer’s increasingly engrossing and twisted relationship as a metaphor for our greater human inability to stop digging ourselves deeper into the grave as cultural entities beyond our individual fates.
Anderson: Yes, it’s a great book. It’s his biggest fiction work by far. It’s the only real novel, and it’s just a masterpiece. When I read it I thought, how is it that I don’t already know about this — how is it that I seem to be the only person I know who’s read this book? At that time I really had not heard anything about it from anybody.
Prochnik: When I was first reading Zweig, I had a similar experience. Later, Zweig's step-niece told me that he thought he would be completely forgotten. Zweig predicted so many aspects of his own undoing and even disappearance.
Anderson: To be erased in his mother tongue…There’s the story of the libretto for the opera he wrote for Richard Strauss after the Nazis had come to power in Germany — The Silent Woman. And the premiere was in Dresden, and then what happened?
Prochnik: Strauss kept insisting on Zweig’s participation and the use of his name in the programme, even though Jews weren’t really allowed by this point to be part of cultural productions of any sort, let alone something on this scale. Strauss was the head of music in the Reich. He was an incredibly powerful person within the bureaucracy. And he argued that Zweig's participation was crucial for the opera’s success. The opera did in fact open and it was enormously successful. Immediately there were bookings in multiple cities around the Reich — and at that point they just shut the whole thing down, just pulled the cloth off the table.
But it’s not only erasure in the mother tongue. There’s an amazing moment in Zweig’s life in the spring of 1941 when he was in New York City. There was an enormous launch banquet given for PEN in Exile at the Biltmore Hotel. Something like a thousand writers were supposed to be there. Many people gave speeches, and Zweig’s proved to be the one that got the most attention. In a completely counterintuitive move, Zweig came out and said, I’m here to apologise before you all. I’m here in a state of shame because my language is the language in which the world is being destroyed. My mother tongue, the very words that I speak, are the ones being twisted and perverted by this machine that is undoing humanity.
Anderson: One thing I thought of along the way — just in how his own psychology is revealed through is work — one thing you do see all along with Zweig is these suicides. People commit suicide, people talk about suicide regularly all through his body of work, and it’s a bit eerie for us now. Whatever you read first, the one thing you do know — even the shortest bio on a dust jacket of Zweig tells you how it ends. And it’s something that really jumps out at you when you come across it, which isn’t so infrequent.
Prochnik: It’s there in so many of his works, and the larger culture had a frighteningly high suicide rate as well. In his last years, Zweig was strikingly given to repeatedly saying, Europe is committing suicide — actually using these words.
But with all of the despair in Zweig’s stories and life, he shows us again and again that there were just a hell of a lot of splendid spots around Europe to go to and to spend time in. You did an amazing job of revealing how parts of the fairy tale were real in the landscapes—and the hotels of course.
Anderson: One thing we came across as we were trying to figure where to do this movie was a collection of images on the US Library of Congress website. There’s this thing, the Photochrom Collection. Two different companies — one Swiss and one American — had a sort of joint venture, where they took black-and-white photographs all over the world, and then they colourised them and mass-produced them. And there are thousands of them. They’re from maybe 1895 to 1910, something like that, all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Prussia, and all over the world. I compare it to the Google Earth of the turn of the century. These are almost all landscapes and cityscapes. There are places that are just known as views. There are many, many of these spots where you can see a little terrace that’s been created, just because people would walk to this place and look out. It’s wonderful, and it really influenced our movie. There’s a wonderful photochrom of the hotel that I always thought of as sort of the model for our hotel, which is the Hotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary, which was in Carlsbad. The thing we learned when we visited all sorts of places that we found on this collection of pictures was that none of them were enough like what they once were to work for us. But the photochrom images seemed to tap into a truth about Zweig’s vision of the world that I was able to draw on in developing a visual aura for the film.
In The Post Office Girl, Zweig’s description of the grand hotel in Switzerland is so evocative. The protagonist is a girl who works in the post office. She’s invited to stay in this hotel as a gift from her rich aunt, and when she arrives in this place, the management thinks she’s there to make a delivery. Her suitcase is a basket. Finally they realise she’s actually going to be a guest in the hotel, which is unlike anywhere she’s ever been. Her point of view about this treatment she receives, and her experience of walking in and realising, “This is where I’m going to sleep”, is so powerful. But also that by the time her holiday abruptly ends, she is already addicted to this other way of life, and her existence is so dramatically changed, and a sort of desperation comes over her — and then a connection she makes with someone who is in his own desperate state. The idea of that work being something that had been out of print for that long is sort of surreal.
Prochnik: I agree. It's interesting — when you described going around looking for a place in the real world to film, and not finding one, I thought also of the sentiment expressed near the end of your film, when the possibility is raised that the world M. Gustave inhabits may really have ceased to exist even before he entered it. There is the suggestion that the whole thing is a feat of imagination. I think this resonates with the embrace of illusion in The World of Yesterday. It gets away from the idea that Zweig was unable to see reality, and moves more towards the notion that he had a desire to live in the imagination so fully that it would diminish the impact of the real.
Anderson: That’s a good one! That might be a good ending.