By Michael Roddy
BERLIN (Reuters) - The death of celebrated American character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman of an apparent drug overdose dampened the opening on Thursday of the 64th Berlin film festival where director Wes Anderson's comedy "The Grand Budapest Hotel" had its premiere.
Anderson's historical fiction stars Ralph Fiennes as a famous concierge who woos octogenarian blonde widows at an alpine hotel in a made-up Central European country in the 1930s.
It amused a press audience but there was no escaping the absence of Hoffman, whose death at 46 last week in New York City after apparently injecting heroin has rattled the cinema world.
Hoffman had been meant to attend the prestigious Berlin event to promote his Sundance festival film "God's Pocket". Jury president and film producer and screenwriter James Schamus said Hoffman would still be there in spirit.
"That news was pretty tough on all of us," Schamus told a news conference with all the jury members present.
"Philip Seymour Hoffman will be here...and I know that a lot of his friends are going to be joining together to remember him. It's places like Berlin that provide a place to remember, mourn and celebrate and I think you can rest assured he will be here."
Anderson's film, with a star-studded cast including Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham and English actress Tllda Swinton, as well as the relatively unknown and young Tony Revolori of California and the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement"), is one of 23 movies in competition, of which 20 are under consideration for the festival's Golden Bear trophy which will be awarded on February 15.
Anderson, who has made a string of eccentric comedies including "The Royal Tenenbaums", "The Life Aquatic" and "Moonrise Kingdom", said that for this film, shot at a German hotel on the Czech-Polish border, he had been inspired by the works of the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, who established his reputation in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
Asked by an American newspaper journalist who Zweig was, Anderson said, "Stefan Zweig has not been popular in America or in English for some years, only in the last mainly eight years has he come back into print....But I think people in Europe are surprised we don't know this writer.
"I read his book 'Beware of Pity', that's the first one I read a number of years ago...Although our story is not based on any of his stories, they're sort of devices and an atmosphere. My intention was to do our own version of a Zweig story."
Anderson also was questioned about how he'd managed to assemble such a distinguished cast, which prompted comedian and actor Murray to say that he'd jumped at the chance because "we are promised very long hours and low wages".
LET WES LIVE HIS "DREAMSCAPE"
On a more serious note, Murray said that he'd appeared in several of Anderson's films in order to "allow Wes to live this wonderful, magical life where this dreamscape comes true".
The film is set in Zubrowka, a pastiche of several Central European countries, and involves a rich widow's inheritance, her scheming family, a rise of a fascist military replete with a "zig-zag" swastika-like slogan, and at its core, the relation between Fiennes's character Monsieur Gustave and Revolori's character as a lobbyboy called Zero.
Anderson said the role of Monsieur Gustave, who is portrayed as being sexually ambiguous even if he is a lady's man for the widows, had been written with Fiennes in mind.
Swinton, under tons of makeup created by the same person who made Meryl Streep look like the aged Margaret Thatcher, plays the wealthy widow while Ronan, sticking to her natural Irish lilt, is Zero's sweetheart, with a birthmark in the shape of a map of Mexico on her cheek.
Anderson, who said the idea of the Mexico birthmark occurred to him because he is from Texas, and Texas was once part of Mexico, said he couldn't have asked for a better cast.
But for him, he added, "The most important is bringing all these characters to life in a fantasy country."
The 1 hour-35 minute movie, which is shot in parts to resemble films of the period, elicited a generally positive response from the first-showing press audience.
"It's very much a Wes Anderson film, with a little more complex narrative than his past films, but the fact it was inspired by Stefan Zweig's writings is quite interesting," said critic Andrew Grant of the Fandor.com website.
"It's quite charming."
(This version of the story clarifies in paragraph seven that 20 films are vying for Golden Bear.)
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)