U.S. director Wes Anderson's all-star love letter to a Europe devoured by two world wars, "The Grand Budapest Hotel." opened the 64th Berlin film festival Thursday to warm applause.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is Anderson's eighth feature and follows his bittersweet first-love story "Moonrise Kingdom", which launched the Cannes film festival in 2012 to become a critical and box office hit.

In the new picture, British actor Ralph Fiennes plays a concierge of the old school, with impeccable manners and an unwavering sense of duty, who takes under his wing a young lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) at the sumptuous spa-town hotel.

Backing up Fiennes is a stellar ensemble cast including Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Lea Seydoux, Jeff Goldblum and Tilda Swinton.

The story revolves around the theft of a priceless Renaissance painting and the battle for an enormous family fortune left by dowager countess Madame D, played by Swinton who is seen aged with prosthetics beyond recognition.

"Madame D is what I look like when I don't put on all this makeup," Swinton quipped after a well-received press screening. "It's the best fancy dress party I can imagine."

Fiennes, who reportedly took the lead role when Johnny Depp bowed out, appears as Gustave, who is accused of Madame D's murder by her scheming son (Brody).

"I was sent an amazing screenplay written by Wes and it was unlike anything else I had ever read," Fiennes said.

"I think to be in a film where the filmmaker is allowed to make the film he wants to make is very rare."

Anderson said he had given Fiennes his choice of roles.

"One of the best ways to not get an actor to be in your film is to offer them a (specific) part," Anderson said.

The premiere marked the third turn in the Berlinale competition for Anderson, who has maintained quirky indie sensibilities while filming with ever growing budgets, following "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and "The Royal Tenenbaums".

Murray, who has appeared in all of Anderson's feature films apart from his debut, plays a member of a secret order of concierges which comes to Gustave's rescue.

The actor said the director's films were labours of love for those involved.

"We are promised very long hours and low wages and stale bread," he joked.

"But you get to see the world and you get to allow Wes to live this wonderful magical life, this dreamscape-come-true. I guess it's because we like him that we go along with it."

Glamour of bygone era

Although set in an imaginary Central European country called Zubrowka, the action in "Grand Budapest" traces a familiarly tragic historical arc from the Belle Epoque whose traditions Gustave represents, to fascism and then communist dictatorship.

The S.S. may be coyly called the Z.Z. in the film, which was shot in Germany, but the Nazi spectre looms over the glamour of a bygone era.

Anderson based the film on the stories and memoirs of Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig about the lost world of his youth, aiming to create a European country "filtered through movies in a way".

The Texas-born director, 44, said he also took inspiration from film classics by Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, 20th century European directors who fled to Hollywood, against the backdrop of a continent plunging into the abyss.

Festival director Dieter Kosslick told reporters last week that apart from being a major new title from a popular director, the movie was the right choice in a year in which Europe marks the 100th anniversary of World War I as well as 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell.

"There is a lot of German history in this movie, and that goes for many of the films to be shown here, regardless of where they are from," he said.

The 11-day festival will screen more than 400 productions from around the world before a jury led by US producer James Schamus ("Brokeback Mountain") hands out the main awards among 20 contenders.

Following the sudden death Sunday of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, organisers said the festival would screen "Capote", in which the 46-year-old starred, as a tribute. "He'll be here," jury president Schamus said.

"It's places like Berlin that you have the opportunity in a sense to remember and to mourn and to celebrate."