By Jiaxin Zhao

I thought of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ when the topic of migrants’ lives and rights came up as the theme of the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Globalist. While the the film does not narrate the story of an average migrant worker, it is still interesting to take a look at him in this context.

Him, the lobby boy,  Zero.

In fact, the entire plot of the movie is anything but ordinary. It depicts a rather dramatic and comic narrative, but in the end one realizes that such was the reality of those times.  We see a migrant fleeing from war and seeking new hope in a more stable and developed world, a hotel concierge (effectively the person running the hotel) with a grace that did not seem to belong to his time, the rest of the crowd, among which are the forces that made Zero’s new life unnecessarily hard and humiliating, as well as obscenely rich, yet depressed people. The movie’s setting highlights the glory of Europe’s culture back then, but the tone of the movie indicates its dying.

Or had it already been long gone?

That is why I want to talk about Zero the lobby boy, a witness to the decay of European heritage and glory.

Zero first arrived at the Grand Budapest looking for a job and presenting a rather modest CV, or what Monsieur Gustave, the hotel devoted concierge, referred to as “zero”. Indeed, trivial and frivolous work experiences without decent training in hotel management were nowhere near Monsieur Gustave’s standards. And when he was asked about his family situation, he echoed, with a hint of restrained grief, “zero”.  Certainly until this point, Monsieur Gustave still sees nothing particular in this little immigrant boy with a less-than-desirable profile. He does, however, understand that this boy comes from a completely different background given the limited social opportunities he received. The element of motivation was something that Monsieur Gustave appreciated, or at the least was curious about. How could this migrant walk into such a grandiose hotel, asking for a job, despite his distinctively unimpressive background?  So Monsieur Gustave asked why Zero wanted to work as a lobby boy.

“Who wouldn’t? It’s the Grand Budapest, Sir. It’s an institution.”

This simple unequivocal respect won Zero the job he had wished for. After that, he was largely influenced by Monsieur Gustave’s manners and philosophies. Ironically enough, in an age of war and cultural decadence, Monsieur Gustave’s outmoded and precious quality happened to have the biggest impact on a newcomer to Europe, and little effect on generations born in that very culture. Here we observe the inevitable and helpless nature of European decadence in a tiny individual struggling to bring back the past’s values and glories: an appreciation for fine arts, cordiality in human relations, unconditional defense of equality, and a humanitarian approach towards migrant workers. And even the struggles he faced, he encountered with grace.

A scene from the film. Photo Credit: Hank Conner, Flickr CC. License available here.

A scene from the film. Photo Credit: Hank Conner, Flickr CC. License available here.

One of the most memorable plots in the movie is the scene in the train where Monsieur Gustave and Zero were asked to show their papers to the police and Zero was asked outside the carriage. Monsieur Gustave rejected this requirement, claiming it was absurd to question Zero so forcefully merely because he was an immigrant. His resistance resulted in a minor fight, when his shout “Take your hands off my lobby boy!” alerted a high commander, who recognized Monsieur Gustave as the respectful personnage from the Grand Budapest and apologized on behalf of his surbodinates. Zero was very much moved because no one had ever before defended his rights as an immigrant, and he was used to being called out every time to be questioned separately.

After thanking the commander, Monsieur Gustave tidied up his clothes and tried to go back to his initial calm by saying: “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… oh, ****  it.” Yes, this time the elegant gentleman failed to finish his sentence of faith. Though to finish this sentence was already not necessary for Zero the lobby boy in order to understand a bit more of this “once-known humanity” and his role to defend it despite his unstable identity at that time.

Another scene that impressed me was when Monsieur Gustave, after his successful prison break, greeted Zero who was waiting at the exit, only to find that Zero forgot to bring a fake moustache and fake nose, which made it more difficult to disguise the escape. Monsieur Gustave was disappointed, but not as disappointed as when he learned that Zero forgot to bring his perfume. He was actually so angry that he started attacking Zero’s identity as a migrant worker as well as where he came from. Zero explained, much to his chagrin, that he became a refugee after losing his entire family to war. Monsieur Gustave was shocked at his own prior indecency and apologized in a very exaggerated manner. This apology scene goes on for minutes and shows the way he accused himself for his condescending words and his peculiarity concerning his own tidiness even in such dangerous situations.

Interestingly though, later in this movie, we can notice that Zero was actually contaminated by this perfume infatuation, thinking that not being tidy and scented oneself is an offence to others.

If you pay attention, you should see that even the faith of this most ardent defender of so-called European values wavered. We would almost say that his efforts were in vain if he did not manage to influence largely one individual, Zero, a migrant worker who lost everything in war, a stranger to this grandiose yet dying civilization. Monsieur Gustave had drawn a picture for this lobby boy: a picture of the virtue to let nobody go and the equality and humanitarian treatment that he had always deserved.

Stefan Zweig, the writer of the Grand Budapest Hotel, referred to this period as “Europe’s Suicide”. Though the film is a work of fiction, it is not hard for one to see its close link to the reality back then: a gruesome atmosphere of war, a fear of ruining art, marching soldiers, identity checks in the train. Some reviews compared the similarity of the fictional state to the Nazi regime (e.g. the resemblance of the flag of the Nazi regime and the fictional Republic of Zubrowka in the movie). Even Monsieur Gustave did not get a happy ending. But thankfully, due to his protection of the immigrant boy, somehow became fortune’s favorite, some elements of himself and a past age managed to remain in this world.

Zero’s full name was Zero Moustafa and he later made headlines for inheriting the Grand Budapest Hotel as a migrant worker. Decades later when he told the writer of this whole story about Monsieur Gustave, he said:

“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 a marvelous grace.”

Featured Image Credit: olga_murillo, Flickr CC. License available here.