Grand Hotel (1932). 112 minutes. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Starring Greta Garbo (as Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (as Baron Felix von Geigern), Joan Crawford (as Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (as General Director Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (as Otto Kringelein), Lewis Stone (as Dr. Otternschlag), and Jean Hersholt (as Senf).
Grand Hotel is a 1932 American-made film set a few years earlier in Berlin at a time when Germany was inching towards Nazification. The movie depicts pre-Hitler Berlin as a dazzling center of cosmopolitan sophistication and adventure, sweeping us away with the interpersonal intrigue and romance of continental life. In the near future, the urbanity in which Grand Hotel revels (as well as the vulnerability associated with urban hotel life that it conveys) would become lost in the dysphoria that was sweeping through Europe—and yet in 1932 when the film was made, it was still possible to envision a Germany that was enveloped in the dreams and schemes of strangers passing each other softly in the night. The movie manages to evade the dark shadow that was crawling across the European continent to tell a story that is about seeking humanity in others and accepting that our assumptions about our fellow man are often quite wrong. Although it at times relies on recognizable character types to drive its drama, and the inner lives of some of the figures are partially withheld from us within the bustling context of the metropolitan hotel, Grand Hotel forces us to move beyond our easy recognition of common profiles and inspires instead surprise—perhaps even shock—at what transpires.
As the movie opens, we see a bevy of residents cross each other’s paths at Berlin’s Grand Hotel. The suicidal ballerina Grusinskaya, whose career is in a tailspin, falls in love with a thief (the dashing Baron Felix von Geigern) on the night he attempts to rob her; she is flung into a state of optimism and is able to perform again. Stenographer Flaemmchen is hired by the businessman Preysing to do his typing as he presides over a failed business deal. She then learns that he would like her to travel with him as a kept woman. The terminally ill Kringelein decides to live off of his savings in his last days, fraternizing with hotel residents Dr. Otternschlag and the Baron. The porter Senf frets at work as he waits for news of whether his wife has given birth. Then on the night when Preysing and Flaemmchen move into adjoining rooms, the Baron attempts to steal from Preysing, who murders him. As Preysing is carted off to jail, Flaemmchen and Kringelein resolve to travel to Paris together in search of a cure for his illness. The movie closes with Dr. Otternschlag wearily observing that in Grand Hotel, there are always people coming and people going, but “nothing ever happens.”
Uniquely for a Hollywood movie of its time, Grand Hotel offers a rich tapestry of frequently overlapping sounds and sights and an ensemble cast with no obvious lead. The result is a multivocalic narrative in which characters coexist in their authority and significance, resulting in a kind of cinematic heteroglossia. Throughout the film, scenes in the lobby feature layered conversations and a camera that pans all the way around the front desk as waves of guests arrive and check in, competing for our attention. The lobby’s revolving front doors evoke the constant turnover at the hotel, with people frequently entering and leaving. There are also scenes at the telephone switchboard, with its operators processing calls, all talking over each other.
We get a taste of how much the film is invested in these layering techniques even in its opening montage. The camera lingers on the many lobby phone booths, where the central characters make private calls. We do not know who they are at this point, but the movie plasters us with details, personalities, and private confessions. Grand Hotel eventually assists us with names and longer, more revealing scenes, but this early sequence makes it clear that some of the work that must be done to connect stories and determine the value of characters and plot points lies with us: much as we must process the conversations in those phone booths, we must process the characters one at a time while we simultaneously work to assemble them into the film’s broader fabric. (This aspect of Grand Hotel reminded me of the ensemble films of Robert Altman, which to an even greater degree require the viewer to unpack overlapping dialogue and parse through a large cast of characters.)
Because Grand Hotel pursues many individual threads, viewers may object that it lacks cohesiveness. They would not be alone: Dr. Otternschlag himself fails to piece together the individual stories we see into a framework of wider significance. He observes twice in the film that in Grand Hotel, “People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” As a permanent resident of the hotel, the doctor is vested with some authority, and accordingly it is tempting to take him seriously. Living in the midst of so much activity, and as an eyewitness to many of the film’s events, Otternschlag in one sense sees everything and thus qualifies as a potential expert and insider on Grand Hotel’s activities.
But ironically in another sense he does not see, perhaps having already seen it all: wounded on the right side of his face during World War I by a grenade, he is permanently scarred, both physically and psychically. There is some discussion in the film regarding how Otternschlag was injured, and yet I should note that he is not offered to us as a great warrior or a stalwart patriot. Instead he seems muted, listless, and bored—chronically unimpressed. To Otternschlag, the high drama of the hotel is not so much non-existent as it is overrated, perhaps especially compared to what he and others experienced in the great conflict, of which he is a persistent echo.
If the movie is effective, we probably offer an immediate mental rejoinder to this critique. Otternschlag may not be moved by what he sees, but the full range of what we see in Grand Hotel— sickness, inebriation, dramatic business negotiations, theft in the night, wild gambling, romance, prostitution, and murder—effortlessly suggests that in actuality a great deal happens at Grand Hotel. Yet Otternschlag’s cool rejection of the importance of the hotel’s activity has the privilege of serving as part of the movie’s opening and closing remarks, lending a kind of bookend quality to the film that is hard to ignore and that must be contended with as an important part of the movie’s narrative. The temptation to take Otternschlag’s observation seriously increases when we consider the emerging global subtext in which the interpersonal tribulations of the masses would soon take a back seat to the kinds of conflicts that Otternschlag has seen and that Germany was about to again witness in horrific new ways. This subtext is not more pointedly articulated in the film, but at times it lingers like generalized Weimar malaise and contributes overall to Grand Hotel’s cool cosmopolitanism. We may value what we see in Grand Hotel as episodes of dramatic and emotional significance, but we are reminded of how tenuous claims of significance are in this culture and at this time.
Otternschlag’s emotional distance from the events we witness is complicated by our own distance from some of it. Many of the characters might at first seem inscrutable and unpredictable. This is a delicious irony, as so many of the characters—the desperate businessman, the ambitious secretary, the dashing jewel thief, and the emotional artist—might at first strike us as predictable types. But upon closer inspection, the characterizations are actually rather nuanced. For example, when the Baron dances with Flaemmchen in the hotel bar, she complains about his subtle alteration since their casual meeting in the hallway the night before. She acknowledges that she does not know him well, and her disappointment is a refreshing acknowledgement of the distance between them.
Elsewhere, the Baron surprises us. His love affair with Grusinskaya might at first strike us as just a typical movie romance, given how quickly and suddenly it progresses. But it is more complex than that: the Baron is not being honest with Grusinskaya, and she is fairly out of control. For one half of the movie, she is suicidally depressed (with actress Greta Garbo famously uttering a version of the line “I want to be alone” in despair three different times). During the other half, she is manically optimistic, and when the film ends, it is strongly implied that she will soon find herself exceedingly despondent once again. She is predictably unstable, but it is not clear when one mood will prevail.
Other characters are similarly complicated. What do we know for certain about Kringelein, for example? He seems gentle and sweet, but there is the suggestion that he may be an embezzler. He is offended by the idea when another character mentions it, but does that mean it is untrue? And then there is Preysing, who depicts himself as a solid family man—until, that is, he perceives the sexual availability of Flaemmchen, and then he essentially asks her to become his personal full-time prostitute. In bludgeoning the Baron to death, he participates in the film’s most stunning surprise; through it, the coming brutality of German life enters the story in a horrible violent flash. The audience I saw the film with at the Pacific Film Archive actually gasped when it happened, but I look at their shock not as an indicator of the film’s failure to provide sufficient context for this grisly event. Instead it was a reflection of how nicely Grand Hotel guards its characters’ private identities.
Rather than supporting Otternschlag’s view that the hotel is a site of minimal interest, the unknowability of so many of the characters—the way that they resist thorough scrutiny and repel our assumptions about what they will choose and how they will behave—effectively also argues for their urbanity, complexity, and humanity. In particular, it is easy to see the potential for nuanced tragedy in all of them: from Grusinskaya’s near-suicide to Kringelein’s at times emotional reaction to his mortality, it is clear that residence in the hotel is at times anything other than grand.
Most specifically, the movie locates the more sinister qualities of hotel life in the immediate context of the European Depression. The things characters are driven to do for money in difficult times are seedy and unpleasant. The Baron goes so far as to steal Kringelein’s earnings at cards before he has a change of heart and returns them, but he needs money to live on and to buy his way out of his crime ring, so he goes on stealing. Preysner himself is on the verge of losing his company, and Grusinskaya could be fired at any moment from the ballet. Only Kringelein seems comfortable engaging with hotel luxuries, but that is because he is spending his life savings in his dying days. And even Kringelein who has accepted his fate rather publicly has moments of despair and desperation, as do the others. No one is financially comfortable or secure, and no one is obviously destined to triumph over their circumstances at any point in the film, even at its conclusion.
The movie focuses on the way that these stories of poverty and woe, of seedy events and backroom deals, unfold within the context of the modern, urbane, and at times anonymous international hotel. An early shot of the Baron looking over the interior balcony of an upper floor down to the lobby reveals many concentric circles of floors, each with many rooms. An elevator opens and closes, a drunken man stumbles by. A group of revelers passes by an open door—they are just extras passing along, but as they giggle and call out, we sense they have their own story that we will never know more about. The hotel is full of people like the five protagonists, and the world is full of hotels. As Kringelein observes when he prepares to leave for Paris with Flaemmchen, every city has a Grand Hotel. The implication is that transience is commonplace, and the hotel experience is a universal metaphor for life.
Part of what makes Grand Hotel special is the way that it mingles this focus on the commonality of its characters’ dilemmas with its large-scale ambition. Other movies like The Great Ziegfeld (1936) inflate their subject matter through their titles and convey their stories with an air of pomposity. A Dr. Otternschlag in another movie (especially a modern movie) might easily be a moralizing war hero whose patriotic core guides the other characters to launch their own inflated demonstrations of nationalistic rectitude. But as we have seen, that is not the case here. The “grand” in Grand Hotel does not participate in such hyperbole. The movie does not locate greatness in political leaders, dictators, warriors, or showmen; in state rooms, in palaces, or on the battlefield.
Instead it finds value in the high-rise hotel rooms, portable typewriters, taxis, and suitcases of visitors, outsiders, and travelers. Observe the final sequence, with characters exiting through the great revolving doors, new characters (newlyweds) making their way in, a taxi pulling up in front of the hotel sign. The camera swirls around this activity, and the dialogue swirls around us as well—Otternschlag reiterating his opinion that nothing ever happens in Grand Hotel, the new guests giving their names at the front desk, the cab driver naming the hotel as people unload their luggage. These new guests will replace the old, sharing in the everyday bustle of transient city life, and that state of turnover, variety, and unpredictability—that cosmopolitan acceptance of the potential for urban life to surprise and thrill—is what makes the hotel, the city, and life in general tremendous.
Grand Hotel was a phenomenon when it debuted in 1932, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and instructing future filmmakers in the art of ensemble storytelling. It would spawn imitators such as 1945’s Week-End at the Waldorf, set in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) provides details about a remake that was proposed in the late 1970s and would have taken place at Las Vegas’s MGM Grand Hotel (it was never made).
Watching Week-End at the Waldorf and reading about the proposed Las Vegas adaptation reinforces for me how special the original Grand Hotel is—not just because of its sophisticated storytelling and characterizations but because of the edginess of its original location. Moving the Grand Hotel story outside of the Weimar Republic diminishes the inescapable sense of precariousness built into the original film in the form of its memory of World War I, the prevalent details of the German Depression, and the prefiguration of fascist violence in the form of Preysner. The 1932 film lacks an overt political component, but as a modern audience, we watch it knowing that what we see is a version of Europe that would soon cease to have a real-world corollary. Grand Hotel is a love letter to a Berlin that was changing; as the numb Dr. Otternschlag’s chronic state of malaise suggests, its vision of a bustling cosmopolitan Europe was already slipping away, and on some level the filmmakers knew it. Its willingness to share both its love for the richness of Berlin life and an awareness that this way of life was short on time makes it precious indeed.