Grand Hotel (1929) by Vicki Baum is set in Weimar Germany at a luxury hotel in Berlin. The six main characters collide over a period of days. It’s the Poseidon Adventure but the guests at the Grand Hotel don’t need a tidal wave to create a disaster. And who are these lucky folks? There’s Grusinskaya, a fading ballerina, Baron Gaigern, an aristocrat turned cat burglar, and Otternshlag, a cynical, scarred war veteran, who perpetually waits for mail that never arrives and describes himself as “a living suicide.” Then there’s also the triangle that forms among Preysing, an industrialist, Kringelein, Preysing’s bookkeeper, who afflicted with a terminal illness, leaves wife, home, and job and scoops up his savings hoping to experience “real life,” and Flammchen, a stenographer who sells services other than typing and “knows her price.”
The venality and decadence depicted in Grand Hotel characterize the age. In some ways, Grand Hotel is Cabaret with more and better clothing. Peysling defrauds. Flammchen commoditizes her body. The Baron gambles and steals, although he possesses an underlying kindness that leads him to reject Grusinskaya and Kringelein as victims. The Baron’s notion of real life, which he unveils to Kringelein, revolves around sumptuous meals, expensive garments, fast cars and planes, casinos, boxing, jazz clubs, and women of dubious virtue. There is even a hint of the racism that will shortly define Germany. In one scene a black boxer has his victory stolen from him. Baum added a subtitle to Grand Hotel, calling it a “sensationalist novel with some depth.” There is no question that Grand Hotel is an unexpectedly racy novel.
It’s the depth that’s open to question. The “some” in the subtitle is a relative term. It’s not that the characters are poorly limned, it’s that their motivations are often impenetrable. In many ways, the characters are stereotyped oddballs (yes, a bit of an oxymoron), whose interactions are frequently not believable. In particular, the May-December romance between the Baron and Grusinskaya arrives out of nowhere, and the mutual attraction just isn’t credible. (The description of Grusinskaya’s facelift came as a surprise. Though maybe it should not have been. The first facelift was performed in 1901 in Berlin).
Baum’s efforts to achieve depth with droppings of pseudo-profundity border on trite. “Each in his own is alone with his own ego and is little concerned with another’s.” “The revolving door turns, and what happens between arrival and departure is not an integral whole.” Critics were right to label Baum’s work trivial—she’s no Thomas Mann.
Despite all this, Grand Hotel has enjoyed enduring popularity as a novel, play, and the classic film in which Greta Garbo informed the world that she wanted to be alone. It earned Baum a ticket to Hollywood none too soon. Baum was a Jew, and Grand Hotel allowed her and her family to escape Nazi Germany.