Sunday, March 23, 2014

Grand Hotel and Breaking Bad

The movie set lobby of 1932's Grand Hotel

On a whim, my husband and I bought and watched the 1932 Grand Hotel. It's both charming and dark simultaneously, perhaps reflecting the zeitgeist of the era--and very Art Deco in look. What surprised me no end was the way it reminded me of Breaking Bad. The two invite a question: What's the better way to live out your last days?

In Breaking Bad, high school chemistry teacher Walter White learns he has terminal lung cancer, and decides to cook and sell crystal meth, both to regain self determination and (ostensibly) to provide for his family. 
In Breaking Bad, high school teacher Walter White finds selfhood through murder and machismo. 

In Grand Hotel,  an accountant named Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), who, like Walter White, has been crushed by long years working, is now dying. Like Walt, he decides to take control of his life in his last days, to be his own person, to stop being afraid. Unlike Walt, he is apparently unencumbered by family  and so takes all his savings out of the bank in order to spend his last weeks (we are led to believe he has only weeks to live; it's never made clear how long) at the Grand Hotel. He insists on--and gets--a premier room with a private bath (!) (fascinating bit of social history that even at a fine hotel in a major city (Berlin) a private bath was not a given in 1932) and entertains kindhearted, new-found friends on caviar and good champagne.
The dying Kringelein (left) enjoys life in the Grand Hotel with good champagne and kind friends.

I was fascinated by this character because, after watching Breaking Bad, I have been trying to imagine ways a terminally ill person could reclaim his or her dignity without having to resort to murder, mayhem and cooking crystal meth. The circumstances are different, as Walt does have a young family (a teenaged son and a baby on the way) and longer to live.  I applauded Walt for his desire to reclaim his selfhood and dignity, but abhorred that the method was through ultra machismo, ultra violence, manipulation and greed. A subtext for Grand Hotel is indeed the violence underlying Berlin life, with booted (the camera at one point lingers on a long, shining boot) underworld figures clearly symbolizing the  already rising Nazi brownshirts. Yet Kringelein doesn't go the violent route at all.

He reclaims his dignity without murder or machismo by politely insisting his needs be met, by sharing generously with others, by openheartedly delighting in life at the hotel, and--most significantly--by confronting his old boss, General Director Preysing. For yes, indeed, the owner of the business where the dying man worked for low wages for many years (ala Walt) also is staying at the hotel. Preysing (played by Wallace Beery) is a brutal man, who ends up beating to death with a phone receiver the kindly but impoverished Baron Felix von Geigorn (John Barrymore), who tries to rob him. When Kringelein meets the old boss at the hotel bar, he confronts him about why he pays such miserable wages to his employees while living in high style. The boss first defends himself-- "I pay the prevailing wage"--then becomes furious and chokes his former employee--presumably willing to choke him to death--until other people pull him away. No such scene occurs in Breaking Bad--never does anyone question why the system throws away people who have worked all their lives--ala Walter--to die.
Kringelein and Flaemmchen, both employees, know Preysing is not a nice guy. 

By the end Grand Hotel, our dying man has supplemented his 10,000 marks life savings with almost 4,000 more through a card game--40% more in a day!--and goes off with the young secretary Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) to Paris, in a deal in which he will pay her way if she has (innocent) fun with him and takes care of him. She goes off with him cheerily, not a controlling woman, not a "bitch," not something to be feared and loathed and hence destroyed, ala most, if not all, women in Breaking Bad, but as an equal companion. She even insists "they can cure anything these days" (words we still hear!), leaving open-ended how long Kringelein will live. We must assume that, then as now, he won't be "cured," but that, then as now, extra money and a loving companion may buy him some extra time.
Kringelein, oppressed worker, and Flaemmchen, the secretary Preysing wants to "buy" for her body, make common cause. 

I found Grand Hotel a deeply sane movie, in the same sense Little Shop around the Corner is a sane movie, and its remake, You've Got Mail (1998), with all its ritual humiliation of women, is not. But then I think, why such hostility now (Breaking Bad is no anomaly) to women, such a desire to punish, humiliate and best them/us? And why is reclaiming selfhood from "the man," from the degrading and underpaid conditions in which so many, then and now, toiled and toil, a matter these days of embracing ultra violence and ultra machismo? Why does it mean "going rogue" without questioning the system? Why does it mean attacking women? Why is Walt implicitly degraded by having a warm, nurturing female principal as his boss? Even a film like The Grand Budapest Hotel (which bears little resemblance at all to Grand Hotel, except being set (in part) in the 1930s) has to have its share of violence and murder, and (admittedly light) humiliation of women for the lead characters to assert themselves. (Grand Hotel's sole murder is committed by a bad guy--"the man" at that, whereas in Grand Budapest, graphic, violent, cold-blooded (but "light-hearted") murders are part of a prison break by the good guys.)

Finally, if art shows us truths we don't--or can't--see any other way, are we worse off as a society than we know? How do we respond?