One night, too many years ago, I successfully battled my parents to be allowed to stay up to finish watching a movie on TV that had me completely mesmerized. I’ve never forgotten the world that film opened, but it’s taken me decades to get around to reading the novel on which it was based: Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel (1929). Enthusiastic reception to the book by bloggers Jacqui, Caroline and Dorian, however, led me to pick it up at last.
The distance between my childhood fixation on the film and my middle-aged encounter with the novel is more than temporal. Watching the film again for the first time in all those years after finishing the novel, however, I saw reasons for its having made such an impression: Greta Garbo’s over-the-top melodramatic acting; a character so drunk he stumbles all over his room then falls onto a bed and off of it, entwined entirely in a satin bedspread; a scene exciting to a ten year old of a thief jumping from a high balcony to another above a busy street. I recalled being especially transfixed by the hotel’s revolving door.
This revolving door provides the organizing principle of Baum’s novel, a simplistic one summed up in the novel’s final line: “The revolving door turns and turns – and swings…and swings…and swings…” Elsewhere Baum is more explicit; her omniscient narrator compares the Grand Hotel, “not inaptly,” to “life in general.” The guests, coming and going, ensconced in their separate rooms, inhabit separate solitudes. Yet the Grand Hotel serves as a crossroads. The diverse guests make fleeting acquaintances and liaisons at times intersecting the “downstairs” employees and breaching social codes that govern the world outside. A porter’s wife has a child; at the same moment, a murdered man is carried out of the hotel through the hotel’s ever turning, revolving door.
Baum achieves her task - to make of this simple conceit something interesting - by populating her novel with grand characters. Although they give the impression of having begun life as stock figures, Baum adorns and supplies enough complexity to keep the reader engaged with them: Grusinskaya, a famous ballet diva well aware of her shelf-life; Baron Gaigern, a goodhearted and debonair thief; Herr Preysing, a rotten-hearted provincial businessman desperate to please a domineering father-in-law; and Flämmchen, an attractive young typist intent on a career in film. Grand Hotel is most certainly a novel with its eye on nascent Hollywood, where the Jewish Baum, invited there to write the film’s script, would spend the last half of her life due to Hitler’s rise. Serving as the center of the novel’s action is Kringelein, a terminally-ill accountant determined to acquire a modicum of dignity after 27 years of servitude in Preysing’s factory and to live out his remaining days in the splendor in the Grand Hotel, and whose acute awareness of mortality shakes up the rigidities of the social mores and upstairs/downstairs class dynamic that govern the hotel’s guests and employees.
The ready-made setting and the explicitness of its operative metaphor feel pat; the character development feels slightly additive. Still, Baum’s strong writing sustained my interest. She throws into her narrative an attempted jewel theft by Gaigern that serves to amplify suspense and gives the novel a “Pink Panther”-esque caper element, milks Kringelein’s carpe diem moments for all they’re worth, and, astonishingly, even manages to make Preysing’s drawn out business meetings engrossing. In addition, in inventing the whole genre of the hotel novel, she cleverly uses a zoom effect (perhaps also advertising the novel’s cinematic consciousness), in giving her characters intense close-ups then pulling her camera back to reveal not only their commonality, but also a hint of their temporal replication, as new guests will arrive to replace the ones we’re allowed to see over the action’s brief span of a few days, and who have themselves replaced previous guests (a conceit presented literally in kindred spirit Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train, a “cheap motel” take on Baum’s “Grand Hotel” genre). Through Grusinskaya, Baum also alludes to other hotels in other cities of the world – a universal multitude of way-stations.
But it’s really the historical context and the small details that count here. Like Katherine Ann Porter’s Ship of Fools, the confined setting serves as a microcosm for issues of class, station and gender. Baum’s Grand Hotel of 1920’s Berlin also slyly manifests the residual and still fresh scars of the First World War. In one understated example, the one-armed elevator operator is replaced by the subsequent shift’s one-armed elevator operator. Baum also casts an eye on devastated Germany’s crippled efforts to greet the future, as seen in a corrupt lie told by Preysing to save himself from economic ruin. Floating through the novel like a symbol of Germany caught between the past war’s wreckage and whatever the future may bring, is one other curious figure, Doctor Otternschlag, who literally holds life and death in his hands since he carries about morphine both for medical emergencies and for his own anticipated suicide. He has two faces – also literally – as one side, neatly divided from the other, presents a ghastly war wound into which is fitted a glass eye. A cinephile may make of that what he or she will.
Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film adaptation, seen now from my middle-aged perspective, improves upon Baum’s novel by confining the action to the hotel, whereas Baum wanders unnecessarily beyond its revolving door, for example by putting Grusinskaya on stage and by having Gaigern take Kringelein on a fast drive and up in a airplane. The film uses two clever visual devices to convey this concentration, one a stunning image of the hotel’s cylindrical atrium and the other an overhead panning shot of hotel switchboard operators busily connecting guests to one another and to the outside world. But the film lacks the subtlety of Baum’s characterization, and its rendition of the Baron’s encounter with Grusinskaya, for example, comes off as downright clumsy compared to the psychological elaborations present in Baum’s nuanced treatment.
As a vehicle for demonstrating its characters’ aspirations and desires, heightened by the hotel’s lending of glamour to life, as well as of their painful, sordid, corrupt fallibilities, Grand Hotel has its charms as well as something beyond charm, a poignant and troubling glimpse of Europe between the wars and of Berlin’s internationalism, a convocation of open-ended possibilities before the sanitizing iron heel of the thirties would come along to quash them. Little of all of that had been apparent to the ten year old watching the film, nor, reading Baum’s novel as an adult, did I experience the kind of immersive fascination I’d had way back when. Even so, one would be hard put to enter Baum’s glimpse of glittering, complicated lives passing through her Grand Hotel without experiencing a youthful yearning to be a part of its in and outs, ups and downs, and myriad goings-on - as well as a more mature and dark, intractable and too human sense that one has, like it or not, already checked in.