Whether you like his films or not, it’s difficult to deny that Wes Anderson has had an enormous influence on our culture. There are the movies, the fact that he chooses to always work with Bill Murray (something I especially look forward to in his films), and the whimsical plots that have drawn comparisons to and borrowed from everybody from Orson Welles to Whit Stillman. Then there is Anderson’s influence on popular style and taste in general: think of the thousands of college kids in the ’00s who discovered the thundering guitar intro to The Creation’s “Making Time” because of its use in Rushmore, the Band of Outsiders catalog, and Jason Schwartzman’s entire career. In terms of filmmakers, Wes Anderson is about as zeitgeist as they get.
I’m not quite sure it was Anderson’s original intent to be Hollywood’s most erudite cultural influencer, but it happened somewhere along the way. People want to look like they’re Tenenbaums (whether it’s Halloween or not), and long before everything in your life could be compared to a Portlandia skit, Wes Anderson films were the late-Gen X / early-Gen Y cliché of the day. Yet I’m of the mind that while Anderson could abuse that influence, he continues to have impeccable taste. Beyond Schwartzman’s fame and bringing forgotten mod bands into the limelight, his newest project promises to get Americans to read the Austrian author and playwright Stefan Zweig’s work.
“It’s more or less plagiarism,” Anderson recently told the press about the huge influence Zweig’s work had on his latest film, Grand Budapest Hotel. Zweig, who Anderson pointed out was among the biggest writers in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, never attained the sort of popularity in America that he did on his own continent. But hopefully because of Anderson — as well as publishers likes Pushkin Press and NYRB Classics, which have both put out beautiful reissues of his work — the time has come for Zweig to enter into America’s literary conversation.
Zweig’s story, unfortunately, will never quite have the rosy glow of most Anderson films no matter how many of his books sell, considering the tragic way his life ended. Constantly in exile beginning in the early 1930s, the Jewish author and his wife, Lotte Altmann, escaped his home country of Austria to avoid Nazi persecution. As the couple roamed from England to America before finally ending up in Brazil, Zweig felt more and more hopeless about the course humanity was taking, as well as his own constant running. In his suicide note, he explained, “to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom — the most precious of possessions on this earth.” Zweig and Lotte were found dead from a barbiturate overdose, holding hands in their bed.
“[I]f you read the Stefan Zweig books,” Anderson told Matt Zoller Seitz in his book, The Wes Anderson Collection, “practically every story he tells begins with somebody telling somebody else about it.” This was the first time I had noticed Anderson mentioning Zweig as an influence; most often, I see the director’s work compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald and (especially) J.D. Salinger. His appreciation for literature is especially apparent in the old, albeit fictional, books that appear in all of his films. It was obvious to me that the director had an interest in books, but the Zweig nod was a bit of a surprise.
Although his influence wasn’t obvious to me, nothing would please me more than a Zweig renaissance fueled by Anderson’s new movie. From his unforgettable stories (compiled in a beautifully presented Pushkin Press volume) to Chess Game, the haunting short novel that serves as his only real commentary on Nazism and his own condition at the time of the book’s writing (it was sent off to his publisher days before he took his own life), his work deserves to find many new readers. And although exactly how Anderson translates Zweig’s influence to Grand Budapest Hotel remains to be seen, here’s hoping his own cultural capital pays off for this long overlooked master.