In the wake of Alexander Sokurov’s series on dictators comes Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader, a study of the nature of megalomania. We begin with an American family living in France just before the treaty of Versailles; the father is a diplomat, the mother a fragile beauty, and the child an angel-faced boy with malign tendencies. While Corbe’s style is much more explosive, what he shares with Sokurov is a crucial reluctance to explain evil. Instead, there is an expression of the fascist sensibility through visual and sonic effects, giving us a close study of the textures of power: what it would feel like to be inside a diabolical mind.
From the opening scenes, Corbet clearly has creative energy to burn: the booming orchestral soundtrack makes us experience power as an exciting assault on the senses, always moving forward and upward. This is not one of those meek arthouse films (The Counterfeiters, The Lives of Others, Wakolda) which treats fascism as a phenomenon we are all familiar with; instead, we will re-investigate the experience of totalitarianism from a child’s point of view.
Documentaries about fascist rulers tend to make use of orchestral music – most often, the cruel chords of Prokofiev evoke history’s dark days. But Scott Walker’s score does something different here: while a shriek of violins forces us to stand to attention, it also pricks up our senses during routine scenes, in the manner of a pulp thriller. It makes us shiver during sequences of family life, as we watch a young boy’s personality come together. Thus the will to power is both exhilarating and terrifying; even from childhood, this would-be dictator has a vision of how the world might be shaped – like an ideal geometry or a set of chords.
The opening credits look like overlapping blueprints, imperfectly blotted sheets – an effect which is somehow frightening, as if mundane details are being mounted into an irrefutable case. But while the film purports to “know” the nature of evil by identifying it in embryonic form, it also questions the bluntness of such an approach. Only the most naïve viewer would perceive the garden-variety problems of this boy – parental adultery, an iron-willed father, a lack of gender differentiation – as latent signs of fascism. If the camera treats Prescott (Tom Sweet) as a kind of Damien or demon child, this only reflects the fantasy of evil as a discrete, coherent entity. When the film’s adult characters try to pin down the definition of sin (literally holding forth from their armchairs), this is seen as facile theorizing.
As the film progresses, we may feel that this boy is not nearly wicked enough – that time is running out for him to become a tyrant of world-shaking proportions. Where is the monster inside the commonplace brat? The film is divided into elegant chapter titles which assure us that something dreadful is around the corner, but their wording is too droll to be taken seriously.
Rather than a study of the origins of evil, the film is in fact viewed through the eyes of evil – the scrutinizing gaze of pathology. When we diagnose an “ordinary” family drama through the lens of world history, we may be missing the point. After all, when Preston’s father and his colleagues carve up Europe at the end of World War I – an act which will have disastrous consequences – the film purports to tell us that the real devil is next door, incubating in the nursery. Is this convincing? Not in any literal sense – we are merely invited to note the emotional similarities between a child’s cunning and the will of a dictator.
Like the work of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, The Childhood of a Leader seems provokingly sterile. Its leading ladies, Berenice Bejo and Stacy Martin, are both listless speakers of English – potentially sinister but blank. Instead, evil is expressed visually – through the alarmed look of black on white and opacity against blur, the sudden sharpness of an image. Overall, the film seems to have a lack of affect – until the last scene, set years later.
We see officials in a conference room, like the one in which Preston’s father and his colleagues re-designed Europe so long ago. They finalize documents and exchange dry comments. One of them enters a car, which travels through an enthralled crowd; at this point, both the camera and the turbo soundtrack fire up. The camera makes furious stabs at the sky, like a fist pumping the air, repeatedly striking an invisible enemy. Finally we realize where power lies – in the coolness of the war-room and the intoxicating energy of the masses. It is a sensational ending, reflecting an insider’s experience of totalitarianism – equal parts thrilling and horrifying.
© FIPRESCI 2015