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  • Writer's pictureKathy Michelle Chacón

Vienna in Contemporary Cinema: Stolen Paintings and a Longing for a Bygone Era

By Kathy Michelle Chacón

As I sit typing these words in the midst of a global pandemic, the prospects of jumping on a plane and flying away on a Viennese getaway anytime soon seem highly unlikely — and yet, despite the pandemic, I have been able to discover and experience Vienna through cinema. Given the prolific number of films and written texts both produced in and inspired by the renowned city, it is easy to conclude that this central European capital possesses a kind of gravitational pull for masters of all crafts and practices. In regard to classical music, Vienna was home to Mozart and Beethoven. When concerning the world of art, Vienna attracted painters such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. In the fields of theory and literature, Vienna stimulated intellectuals like Stefan Zweig and Sigmund Freud. The lists go on and on. While the city balances many prestigious facets—its love of music, its interests in unorthodox artistic expression, its influence on intellectual theory—it also bears the scars of Nazism and ongoing conversations around antisemitism. These factors considered, I believe Vienna represents humankind at its highest level of creativity and thought, but also at its most vulnerable. These complicated negotiations between cultural greatness and the unforgivable are best represented through films like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Simon Curtis’ Woman in Gold (2015). Although these cinematic works differ greatly in style and tone, their interests in visual beauty, utilization of the flashback as a narrative technique and plots surrounding stolen works of art function as reflections of Vienna’s multifaceted histories, as the city is both the site of artistic genius and historic religious and racial intolerance.

Vienna’s connection to the world of arts and culture can be traced back to the royal House of Habsburg. Habsburg royal, Maximilian I, is regarded as “the first ruler of the modern age to consciously and purposefully employ… book printing… spoken word, visual art, folk music, etc. for maintaining his own power and for increasing the prestige of his dynasty” (Füssel 7). From Maximilian I, the royal family’s interest in art would only evolve as it became customary for the royals to invite promising composers to play in their court, as Maria Theresa would do of Mozart (Crankshaw 169). Director Wes Anderson takes all of these royal and societal associations of visual art, music, and architecture to create the Grand Budapest Hotel, the ultimate culmination of Vienna’s illustrious cultural identities. Although the film is set in a fictitious European country called the Republic of Zubrowka, there are traces of Vienna at every turn and are most recognizable within the hotel’s architecture and set design. The design of the Grand Budapest Hotel is strikingly similar to The Hofburg, the former imperial palace of the Habsburg family. While one establishment is brightly painted pink and the other is not, both The Hofburg and the fictional hotel exude an overwhelming sense of decadence and showmanship. Both buildings boast impressively massive fronts adorned with various shaped windows and matching top domes at each side. The internal set design for the fictitious hotel is one that makes even more direct references to Viennese art. Near the nine minute mark of the film, viewers are invited into the hotel room of Madame D., where Gustav Klimt’s Allee zum Schloss Kammer and Faggeto paintings are hanging on the wall. Later in Madame D.’s home, we get a laugh when concierge Gustave replaces the coveted Boy With Apple painting for Two Lesbians Masturbating, an erotic art work Anderson commissioned to resemble the work of Egon Schiele (Vineyard 2014). The result of the film’s meticulous visual design is the creation of a highly sophisticated and intellectual world that most effectively captures all the triumphs and accomplishments of Viennese culture, specifically a Vienna before war.

Similarly, Simon Curtis’ Woman in Gold uses visual indicators to elevate Vienna and draw attention to the magnitude of its culture and influence. When the film first introduces protagonists Maria Altmann and Randy Schoenberg, the pair are in Los Angeles, California — as physically and psychologically far away from Vienna as two people can be. When in Los Angeles, the director favors medium and close up shots which focus more on character than location. The positioning of the camera shifts greatly once on location in Vienna. This difference can be observed when Maria, Randy, and Hubertus first visit the Belvedere Museum together, located in Belvedere Palace. The scene begins high above ground in the Belvedere gardens. In an extreme wide shot, the three characters begin small and slowly make their way towards the lens. As the three walk past the camera, the film’s focus shifts upward to reveal the gigantic palace. Once in the museum, in another wide shot, the camera is placed on the floor, the lowest point possible, and positioned looking up towards the characters and their grand surroundings. Through the various camera angles and shots, Curtis highlights the visual beauty of Vienna and its architecture but also provides cues as to how the film spectator should view the city. Although Woman in Gold is openly critical of Vienna for its role in accepting Nazism, there is a sense of admiration felt for the city as illustrated by this scene. This nuanced positioning within admiration and frustration manifests itself as desire for a Vienna of the past.

Wes Anderson credits the writings of Stefan Zweig as primary inspiration for his 2014 film (Anderson 2014). It is because of Zweig's influence that the film possesses a deep longing for the past. In The World of Yesterday, Zweig grapples with the realities of being exiled from his home as the result of Nazi rule. Remembering prewar Vienna, he writes as his opening sentence, “When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the first world war, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the golden age of security” (Zweig 1). In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the desire for a bygone era is reflected through the utilization of the flashback. An overwhelming majority of the film takes place in the past as a story from Zero’s recollection. The differences between the past and the present are, in true Wes Anderson fashion, coded in color and design. In the 1930s, the Grand Budapest Hotel was a vibrant hub of beautifully dressed rooms and bright chandeliers. The color palette of the 1930s hotel is full of light pinks, cool blues, and warm blushes. This color scheme is youthful, inviting, and nostalgic. Where in the 1960s, however, the hotel trades in its enchanting exterior for concrete walls and a prison-like feeling. The lush pinks turn into harsh oranges and the chandeliers into unflattering lights. Not only has the hotel lost its aesthetic charm, but also its opportunity-filled spirit and optimism. This stark difference of the hotel across the decades represent the love and light Vienna lost during the Nazi era. 1930’s Grand Budapest Hotel is Zweig's golden age and the era is most certainly missed.

Flashbacks work similarly in Woman in Gold as they represent a time before Nazis took away Maria’s family, home, and previous life in Vienna. The flashbacks portraying Maria’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, are wrapped in a golden filter and speak to a happier, better time in the world. For Maria Altmann, Stefan Zweig, and even Wes Anderson, there is a desire to return to the past. These desires are not motivated by the usual nostalgia for ‘simpler times’ but in a deep yearning for a life before unimaginable pain and loss. These desires are somewhat reconciled through the utilization of plots surrounding stolen art works. Having the films center around the return of stolen artworks allows the characters in the stories, the actual people who lived through these events, and the filmgoer the ability to find justice in something tangible as a way to reconcile the unimaginable horrors committed by the Nazis during World War II and beyond. The Grand Budapest Hotel and Woman in Gold approach style and tone in completely different ways, but at their core they come to the same conclusion: Vienna is an incredible city with rich history and culture but it also represents different things to different people depending on the time and person. I believe the films also agree on one other great point: history and the past does matter, and we have to face it in order to move forward.

Works Cited

Anderson, Matthew. “Stefan Zweig: Grand Budapest Hotel’s inspiration.” BBC,

Anderson, Wes, director. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014.

Crankshaw, Edward. Maria Theresa. London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1970.

Curtis, Simon, director. Woman in Gold. Origin Pictures, BBC Films, 2015.

Maximilian I. Theuerdank: The Epic of the Last Knight, edited by Stephan Füssel, Taschen America, LLC, 2018.

Vineyard, Jennifer. “Wes Anderson on The Grand Budapest Hotel, Reimagined Nazis, and His Sock Drawer.” Vulture,

Zweig, Stefan. The World of Yesterday. Translated by Benjamin W. Huebsch, Helmut Ripperger, Plunkett Lake Press, 2013.


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