The Distribution of the Sensible in The Grand Budapest Hotel

by Nicole Rothwell Guerra
2848 words



Distribution of the Sensible

Film Techniques



The Distribution of the Sensible in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nicole Rothwell Guerra

HUM306: Watching Film & Television

Word Count: 2848


This essay provides a critical film review on The Grand Budapest Hotel directed by Wes Anderson. It holds as its central thesis that The Grand Budapest Hotel proves Ranciére’s concept of “distribution of the sensible”, where aesthetics allows director Wes Anderson, through the use of film techniques, to disrupt the senses of a western audience by presenting a refugee’s lived experience as a central theme, making visible the status of Eastern refugees in Western European countries. The film review contains a brief overview of Ranciére’s concept “distribution of the sensible” followed by concrete examples of the film techniques which disrupt the social order presented in the film and make visible refugees in Western Europe through the character of Zero Mustafa. The film review concludes that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a true aesthetic masterpiece in accordance with Ranciére, making it a truly educational film well worth watching.
If popular education is education that connects us with the lives and stories of everyday people and thereby can create bridges of understanding and solidarity, then films that represent those lives in rich detail and in a way that challenges viewers to think in new ways are vital educational tools. (Brown, 2011 p. 245)

            The film The Grand Budapest Hotel, written and directed by Wes Anderson and based on the writing of Stephan Zweig, is an example of one such popular educational tool that allows its viewers to learn more about the societies we live in (Anderson, 2014). The Grand Budapest Hotel (TGBH) follows the story of concierge Gustave and lobby boy Zero Mustafa’s adventures after being framed for the murder of a noble women from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka in the 1930s (Anderson, 2014). Zubrowka is styled after long gone Eastern European empires, such as the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, or Soviet, and portrays Zubrowka’s decline into war and poverty (Scott, 2014). Throughout the film, many diagenetic and non-diagenetic elements are used to hint at the fictional Republic’s similarities to real life western culture. Of importance is the fact that concierge Gustave is an educated Western man, while Mustafa is a stateless boy from Eastern descent, with the stories happenstances connecting these two unlikely characters. Zero’s wife Agatha highlights the importance of their connection by the end of the film, when reciting in lyrical fashion “Whence came these two radiant, celestial brothers, untied for an instance as they crossed the stratosphere of our starry window. One from the East and one from the West.” (Anderson, 20141:29:00). The importance of these characters backgrounds and connection proves Rancière’s concept of “distribution of the sensible”, where aesthetics allows director Wes Anderson, through the use of film techniques, to disrupt the senses of a western audience by presenting a refugee’s lived experience as a central theme making visible the status of Eastern refugees in Western European countries.  Due to its success within Western European audiences, with the majority of its global box office success deriving from audiences in UK and France, I assume that the movie was indeed targeted towards this specific audience in order to disrupt the conception of western social order (Beaumont-Thomas, 2014). To support my claim, I shall first provide a brief conception of Rancière’s “distribution of the sensible”. Then I shall turn to the film techniques used by Anderson to bring this concept to life in TGBH.

Distribution of the Sensible

            Society and governments are dominated by a specific social order (Rancière, 2001, thesis 2). This social order determines what is recognized as correct or, in other words, what is shared between the individuals who are a part of the dominant group and the factors which determine which individuals can claim a part in this sharing.  The distribution of the sensible is precisely this, it explains how time, spaces and forms of activities are distributed and which of these is visible, audible, thinkable or sayable by individuals who partake in a specific social order (Rancière, thesis 7). Furthermore, it determines who has the right and the capacity to speak and who will be listened to and take part in the sensations of society (Rancière, thesis 7). To give a concrete example, in minute 2:00 of TGBH, we are shown the author of the book which the movie appears to be based on (figure 1). The author is presenting us with information, speaking to us from a position of authority, making it clear that his voice must be listened to since he will be the narrator for the upcoming story (Barsam & Monaham, 2016).

Figure 1

            What is interesting about the distribution of the sensible is not how it explains the current status quo but how it provides us with the tools and necessary knowledge to disrupt the social order enabling us to bring new voices into the existing social order (Rancière, 2001, Thesis 4). In minute 2:12, Anderson breaks away from the established distribution by making the sound of a door opening listenable which takes the attention away from the author’s voice. At 2:18, by using a pan-shot, Anderson brings into view a boy with a fake gun who shoots at the author, completely disrupting his speech. The pan-shot continues to follow the boy revealing a painter in the adjacent room at work. A reverse pan-shot then returns our view to the author where he continues with his narration. Although this scene lasts mere seconds, it has disrupted our senses and has brought our attention to characters that would normally not be given the space or screen time to participate in the creation of a story. Anderson’s main point of disruption occurs through the character of Zero Mustafa.

Figure 2

Film Techniques

            In the first scene of the movie, as shown in figure 2, Anderson makes use of a nondiegetic element, screen text, to inform the audience about the setting of the story (Barsam & Monaham, 2016, p. 154). The screen text establishes the eastern boundary of the European continent as the location of the story. This creates an expectation of a specific social order, one based on our knowledge of the social dynamics that have existed in Eastern European countries. This allows the narrator to march into the story without having to spend time explaining the social dynamics of the society presented, as we already have a vague idea of the functioning of this society, as our own society bares many resemblances to the one depicted on screen. Therefore, our ability to understand and connect with the storytelling is already unequally distributed between viewers, with western viewers having a higher ability to implicitly understand the social order presented.

            Furthermore, it is established early on that the main protagonist of the story is Zero Moustafa. Although Anderson lures us into believing that Zero will play the role of sidekick for Monsieur Gustave, we know that it is an aged Zero who is retelling the story to the fictional author of the book TGBH. Furthermore, towards the end of the film an iris shot is used to emphasize the importance of Zero which frames him as the main protagonist as seen in figure 3 (Barsam & Monaham, 2016, p. 351). Therefore, by slowly having Gustave hand Zero the role of protagonist of the story, Anderson fundamentally disrupts the hierarchy of visibility and knowledge that we have come to expect (Barsam & Monaham, 2016, p. 124). This disruption occurs because, as a refugee with no family nor education, Zero would normally not be expected to participate, let alone actively participant, in a stereotypical western story, one based on the struggles for wealth of Eastern European nobility. yet throughout the film his struggles adapting to European society gain more and more importance, with Zero becoming the sole inheritor of the riches of a long-established noble family of Zubrowka. An occurrence that would not have seemed possible when the characters first set out on their adventures.

Figure 3

            Another key scene that helps establish the importance Zero will have in the movie starts at minute 12:50. Up until now, Zero has only been a background character to the storyline, with the emphasis being placed on M. Gustave. Yet at this moment (figure 4), M. Gustave acknowledges the existence of Zero, which grants him the time and space to use his voice to introduce himself, disrupting our expectations and therefore our senses.  Wes Anderson also makes strategic use of positionality to symbolize the the shift of Zero from a secondary to main character. As seen in figure 4, Zero first sticks to the left side of M. Gustave, showcasing that he has still not earned the trust or respect of the esteemed concierge. However, once Zero had proven his “worth”, Zero stands on M. Gustave’s right side, establishing himself as the right hand man of the Concierge and emphasizing the important role he will play during the rest of the film. Furthermore, Zero’s late introduction as a main character occurs quite late in the film, in this way Anderson built a certain expectation of whom the story would build upon, in this case an educated white male, only for this to be subverted so as to allow for a distribution of the sensible.

Figure 4

            In opposition to Zero stands the western social order as the antagonist. According to Ranciére (2001, thesis 4), when a sense of belonging is created so is the sense of unbelonging. In TGBH, culture, wealth, and a history of nobility is used to measure individuals’ ability to belong in Zubrowka.  As an “uncultured” orphaned boy of Eastern descent, Zero become part of this unbelonging. The audience is informed about this by the repetition of two nearly identical scenes that frame the beginning and end of Monsieur Gustave and Zero’s adventures which are the ID checks by the changing military forces of the Zubrowskian government. Here, the soldiers attempt to take Zero out of the story, away from the camera and deny him the right to participate and influence in the upcoming adventure. Had it not been for the intervention of Monsieur Gustave, Zero would have never participated in this story and no distribution of the sensible would have taken place. Instead, the violence that occurs in the everyday life of refugees takes place in front of the camera allowing the audience to feel and experience the injustices that are a part of Zero’s everyday life, for example acts of unbelonging and illegalization through border controls, racist remarks by natives of Zubrowka, and acts of violence enacted by both government officials and civilians (Fakhrashrafi et al, 2019).

Figure 5

            A scene which showcases the director’s perception of a refugee’s life can be seen in figure 5. In this scene M. Gustave explains how he must act to become a perfect lobby boy:  “A lobby boy is completely invisible yet always in sight. A lobby boy remembers what people hate. A lobby boy anticipates the clients needs before the needs are needed. A lobby boy is, above all, discreet to a fault.” (Anderson, 2014, 14.30) This definition applies to the role that Anderson assigns Zero in the movie, shot as a protagonist always in the center of the frame yet never the center of attention until the final focal shot shown in figure 2 (Barsam & Monaham, 2016, p. 255). This can be further seen in figure 6. Zero can be found throughout the movie in frames within frames, showcasing the importance that he plays in this film. Yet, he is always with another main character, acting as an aid or supporting character to the other figure. In the shot where M. Gustave compares himself to boy with apple, Anderson brings Zero’s face into the shot using a mirror, which allows for the audience to see Zero’s reaction to moments where we normally wouldn’t be able to see Zero’s reaction. Therefore, although Zero is never the center of attention, Anderson always makes sure he is in sight,  discretely partaking and shaping the story. In this way, an otherwise entirely western scene is disrupted by the continual addition of a refugee’s experience.

Figure 6

            The technique which most strongly proves the claim of this analysis is Anderson’s use of both realistic and fantastic design styles (Barsam & Monaham, 2016, p. 188). Throughout the entirety of the movie, the story is shot in vibrant colors and textures making the TGBH feel like a fantastical and exhilarating story about adventure, love, and fortune. The way that the characters’ faces are constantly lit up and accentuated adds a non-realistic feel to the movie that allows for the director to present tragic events in a lighthearted and fun manner. A clear example is portrayed in figure 7. The gunshot scene where Dmitri is seen shooting Monsieur Gustave and Zero has a pink filter which matches Mendel’s car from where the scene starts from. This coloring of the inside of the Grand Budapest Hotel feels more prominent than earlier takes of the Hotel. Furthermore, Dmitri stands underneath a chandelier and M. Gustave and Zero stand inside an elevator shaft with bright lights which emphasizes the importance of these three figures in this scene. Finally, the director makes use of a pan shot to switch from one character to another, further amplifying the fantastical feeling of the story. This fantastic design style pulls us into the story, bringing to life what an Eastern European society may have felt and looked like in all its glamor and flamboyance. Furthermore, it emphasizes its fictionality, making us feel comfortable to laugh and enjoy the narration as if where only another fairytale of a time long gone and no longer relevant to our modern day struggles.

Figure 7

            On the other hand, Anderson makes use of a realistic design style at two crucial moments in the movie. The first moment is the scene where Zero reveals his life story to M. Gustave after he has escaped prison as seen in figure 8. In this scene, the protagonists are no longer using flamboyant clothes nor extravagant colors. The scene also uses less lighting than the rest of the movie, albeit the streetlight at the center of the shot still provides an unrealistic feel to the scene. Yet, by changing design style, Anderson gives a heavier degree of importance and solemnity to the message and story which Zero is conveying, disrupting the social order that had been established throughout the prior scenes of the movie. This scene reminds the audience of the harsh reality refugees faced and continue to face in our own societies. While Gustave’s anger portrays the stereotypical opinions in which “cultured” Europeans view immigrants such as Zero, Zero’s candid and calm answer refutes the ridiculousness of these stereotypes. Furthermore, Gustave’s seemingly sincere apology allows for the audience to further sympathize with Zero and, in this way, disrupt our definition of whom should and shouldn’t belong in western society.

Figure 8

            This is also done in the closing scene of Zero and M. Gustave’s adventures when Anderson uses a black and white design style. In figure 9, all extravaganzas are gone, creating a dark and foreboding atmosphere. The camera no longer dances from character to character with the same ease as the rest of the film and the soldiers which enter the train compartment portray a more accurate depiction of soldiers as would be expected by the audience in a society which is teetering towards war.  In this moment, all playfulness and fantasy has left the movie, forcing the audience to experience the full gravity of what it means to be a stateless individual in a western country. Not only is the social order disrupted but it is broken altogether.

Figure 9

            Throughout the film, Anderson attempts to create a perceptual subjectivity in his storytelling to convey the message that what is being viewed is an accurate depiction of the lived experiences of a refugee in Europe (Barsam & Monaham, 2016, p. 256). Nevertheless, the fact that the director and screenwriter is a white male, that the movie is based on the books of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, and that the writer in the world of the story is also a white European male creates a sense of uncertainty of whether what is portrayed as the perspective of refugees is true. As Bonner (2013, p. 93) describes, natural history documentaries are framed by male directors and screenwriters who replicate patriarchal and masculinist societal constructs onto subjects that do not obey the rules of these constructs. Her critique of masculine POV is also valid in relation to TGBH. Although the story concludes with Zero Mustafa as the protagonist and visibleness the experience of refugees in a film where their depiction is not only unexpected by normally actively excluded, we must also consider that Mustafa is still framed by “The Author” of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a white middle class European male of the 1960s and by Wes Anderson himself, an American male director of the 21st century. Bonner’s critique is therefore very relevant in terms of the Grand Budapest hotel for it is only through these masculine POV that Zero Mustafa has been given the space to enter the visible. Therefore, we should take into close consideration whether TGBH is disrupting the social order with accurate experiences felt by refugees or if it is presenting an idyllic version that is easier for western-centric and patriarchical audiences to digest.


            By using a varying array of narration, mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing techniques director Wes Anderson was able to create a powerful film where a multitude of implicit messages lie underneath the superficial eccentricity of his design style. By using these techniques to create a space for the refugee’s voice and experiences in a film that originally lures us to perceive it as nothing more than a fantastical depiction of Eastern European society in the 1930’s, Anderson manages to partake in the distribution of the senses as theorized by Ranciere. In this manner, The Grand Budapest Hotel becomes an aesthetic masterpiece well worth watching.