Oscar Nominees 2015, Best Original Score (Part 1 of 6): Alexandre Desplat’s The Grand Budapest Hotel


2014 was another busy year for Alexandre Desplat, who scored a total of five films released that year, of which both The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game have been nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Score. The former film is a quirky comedy and Desplat’s score is an ideal match for the eclectic visual style that has become its director Wes Anderson’s signature. For as Jon Broxton notes in his review of the score,

Desplat describes his score for The Grand Budapest Hotel as “the sound of Mittel-Europa”, a sort of cultural mish-mash of instrumental ideas and compositional styles that is intended to mimic a mythical place that sounds just sort of ‘vaguely European’ to untrained American ears – much like the fictional country of Zubrowka itself is an amalgam of different architectures, landscapes and accents.

Thus, in Grand Budapest, not only is the music infused with the kinds of memorable themes, catchy ostinatos, and distinctive instrumental palettes that are typical of a Desplat score, but it also frequently blends styles that possess radically different associations. These include sounds as disparate as a jazzy brushed snare drum, Russian balalaika-playing, and Gregorian chant. Unifying Desplat’s score, however, are four prominent themes (or leitmotifs) that are heard at various points throughout. In the film music analysis below, I will explore the interaction between music and narrative in four of these themes.

Zero’s Theme

Though this theme is not heard many times in the film, when it does occur, it marks pivotal points in the story. Zero’s theme is rather lengthy, being set in two parts, the first employing a repeated long-short rhythm over several phrases, and the second announcing a melody with a more even rhythm.

The theme first appears shortly before the introduction of Zero Moustafa as an elderly man (F. Murray Abraham) near the start of the film in the narrative told by “the Author” as a young man (Jude Law). Of the four main themes in the film, this is the only one to be centered on a major chord. While major chords used as tonal centers typically evoke positive sentiments of some sort, the situation here is more complex.

The first eight notes of the melody clearly outline a C major chord before twice reaching up to a high A sitting just above the chord. This A then moves through the chromatic note A-flat back down to the G atop the major chord. In C major, the A-flat is the flattened sixth scale degree, which is borrowed from C minor and in film music (and concert music) has long been a symbol of romantic longing when imported into a major key.

Familiar themes such as those for Princess Leia from Star Wars or Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark employ this same device. In Grand Budapest, Zero tells the Author that his reason for retaining possession of the hotel and returning to it regularly is to preserve the fond memories of his time there with his long-deceased wife, Agatha. The combination of a sunny major key and its clouding over with the flat-6 degree provide a perfectly bittersweet accompaniment for any desires that remain unfulfilled for the vast majority of a film (such as a romantic relationship), or even for the film’s entirety, as here, where Zero resolutely clings to a past that can never be retrieved.

This idea of minor darkening the effect of a major key becomes even more overt in the theme’s third, fourth, fifth, and sixth phrases, where the music passes through two keys that, in a major-key context, would normally be major as well. As though to reiterate the conflict between major and minor, however, the first two phrases of the theme then return, reinstating the more positive sound of the central C major chord. Listen to the first 30 seconds of the cue below to hear these first six phrases:


Zero’s Theme also appears at a few other critical moments in the film: when Zero tells his tragic family history to Gustave, and when Zero and Agatha are married. Curiously, the theme is also heard with the lead-up to and introduction of the secret (and very silly) “Society of the Crossed Keys,” a network of hotel concierges across Europe who help each other out in times of need. At this point, we may ask how Zero is the focus of attention in this scene. The answer is that, clearly, he is not. As I mentioned, this is the only prominent theme to be set in a major key. And significantly, the theme’s distinctive flat-6 degree is removed for most of this version, so it acquires a much more positive expression that is wholly appropriate for the secret society saving the day. Thus, one might understand this statement of the theme as being emotionally motivated, that is, for its emotional quality rather than for its established association. Hear this version of the theme below:

Gustave’s Theme

This theme is introduced with the first appearance of Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s meticulous concierge who sees to it that everyone and everything in the hotel is in its proper place. Unlike Zero’s theme, that for Gustave is set entirely in a minor key, which establishes an air of seriousness that aptly describes the character’s attitude towards his duties at the hotel. At the same time, the theme usually begins with just one instrument: the solo cimbalom, which plays Gustave’s accompaniment figure and expressing some of the loneliness we know Gustave to feel—that is, at least until he befriends Zero. Only after some time does a true melody appear overtop the accompaniment of the theme. But whether we hear the accompaniment, the melody, or both, the association is always with Gustave. The cue below starts with the accompaniment and brings in the melody overtop at 0:34 after a brief pause.


This theme is concentrated near the start of the film, when Gustave is largely in control of his situation. As the film progresses, however, he quickly loses that control, being (wrongly) arrested by the Zubrowkan police for the murder of Madame D, a super-wealthy 84-year-old patron of the hotel who was enamored with Gustave. Indeed, he spends the remainder of the film attempting to regain his freedom and clear himself of the charge. Accordingly, Gustave’s theme essentially disappears from the film as the focus of the narrative shifts to those acting against Gustave.

Zubrowkan Militia Theme

Once Gustave and Zero are on the train to Lutz to attend the wake of the now-deceased Madame D, we hear this new theme:


While the association of this theme is not at first clear, its use of the low brass and a minor chord as a center suggests the music of an antagonistic force. And indeed, as the train comes to a halt, outside the train’s window appears the Zubrowkan militia headed by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), upon which we hear the brassy theme once again. At this point, it becomes clear that the antagonistic force, at least in this scene, is the militia, an idea reinforced by the contrast between the cheerful colors of Gustave’s and Zero’s uniforms and the dull grey of those of the militia. (In a near-repeat of this scene at the end of the film, Gustave even comments wryly of the now-black militia color that “I find these black uniforms very drab.” This latter scene is even shot in black-and-white, as opposed to the color in the rest of the film.)

This theme is not only heard with the militia. When Gustave and Zero come upon the reading of Madame D’s will, the theme sounds again. What meaning is it to have here? Like the militia, Madame D’s relatives, who have all come in the hopes of obtaining a piece of the woman’s fortune, are dressed in greys and blacks in contrast to Gustave and Zero. Even more overtly, Gustave is treated as a usurper when it is announced that Madame D left a very valuable painting with Gustave. And it is this event that precipitates Gustave’s entanglement with the law. Thus, the theme here is expanded to include an antagonistic group that, while distinct from the militia, acts on Gustave in a similar way. While we tend to think of themes and leitmotifs in film as remaining fairly fixed in their associations, this technique of broadening the association of a theme to similar people, things, or ideas is actually fairly common. To draw on a familiar example, although the main theme of Star Wars is to a large extent Luke’s theme in the original three films, it is often broadened to become a generalized “good-guy” theme that can apply to anyone in the Rebel Alliance. Both there and in Grand Budapest, we could refer to such a broadened version as a thematic statement of expanded association.

The militia theme is expanded in other ways in the film. We hear it with the title card, “Part III: Check-Point 19 Criminal Internment Camp,” which is followed by an establishing shot of the prison Gustave is sent to. In short, his freedoms are revoked in much the same way as in his other encounters with the militia.

The theme’s association is also expanded when Gustave and Zero are on their way to meeting Serge X (Mathieu Amalric) in an attempt to clear Gustave’s name. While Gustave is not in any immediate trouble onscreen, the film has made clear that the hit-man, J. G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe), has been sent to silence Serge once and for all. Hence, we know trouble is brewing and that Gustave and Zero are headed into some danger. As though confirming this interpretation, the theme appears again once Gustave and Zero begin a (comically) perilous chase down the mountain after Jopling.

The last scene to incorporate the theme returns it to its original association of the militia when we see that the Grand Budapest has been turned into a barracks for the war. This five-minute cue is the most orchestrally colorful and compositionally complex in the score. Notably, the statements of the theme contain several chords that are altered and sound like distorted forms of the originals, suggesting the heightened tension of the situation, especially as it relates to Gustave. Hear some of this version below from 0:08 onward:

Finally, I would point out that the militia theme is the most prominent theme heard in the large central portion of the film, suggesting that it is Gustave’s antagonists who have the upper hand for most of the film.

Jopling’s Theme

This theme makes its entrance when Jopling sets out to find and kill Serge X, the lone witness to Madame D’s murder. It is yet another theme to center on a minor chord, but this time, the minor chord is set in an unusual scale that sounds like a minor scale but has both a raised fourth degree and a lowered second degree:


The impact of this scale is one of horror (in this case, melodramatic horror), especially as it is scored “fearfully” in the organ (0:00-0:07 below):

This theme is closely associated with Jopling throughout the film as it appears, for instance, when Inspector Henckels pulls a severed head out of a basket, leaving no doubt that it was the handiwork of Jopling, even though we did not see him commit this murder.


As is typical of Desplat’s scores, that for The Grand Budapest Hotel stitches the cues together with a small handful of prominent themes: those for Zero, Gustave, the militia, and Jopling. While the score is quite traditional in its use of harmony, melody, and rhythm, it nevertheless remains highly distinctive through its combination of broad melodies, memorable ostinatos, and unusual orchestrations, as well as a somewhat freer approach to themes through statements that are emotionally motivated or of expanded association. Indeed, these are the musical fingerprints that we have come to know and expect of Desplat’s reliably solid film scores.

Coming soon… The Imitation Game.

8 thoughts on “Oscar Nominees 2015, Best Original Score (Part 1 of 6): Alexandre Desplat’s The Grand Budapest Hotel”

  1. Hi Mark,

    Wonderful analysis, as ever, and so very interesting and logical. This has engaged my interest in a film I otherwise wouldn’t have bothered to see. Thanks!

  2. hi,

    thank you so much, very clear and to the point analyses. maybe a lord of the rings 1 to 3 analyses would be interesting? keep up the good work!

    1. Film Score Junkie

      Thanks, Bram. Lord of the Rings is certainly on my to-do list. It’s just so much music that I haven’t had the time to analyze it in depth (which would go beyond merely pointing out the leitmotifs, a task that Doug Adams has done quite well).

  3. Hi Mark,

    Thank you so much for doing the Oscar nominees again!
    A wonderful analysis as others have pointed out, Desplat surely has a good chance of finally winning an Oscar this year

    1. Film Score Junkie

      Thank you for the supportive words, Paul. If not this year, I have a feeling Desplat will earn an Oscar in the relatively near future, given that he’s becoming a regular in the list of nominees. It’s always solid music.

  4. I was looking for something to help me to understand this score better, and this blog was super helpful! I have always been a fan of Desplat’s ever since his collaboration with Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox! Thank you so much!

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