While realizing that many factors add up to an authoritarian leader, I often wonder how much of their mental makeup was formed in childhood. And specifically, did their parents hug them, love them outwardly and unreservedly? I know, I know, people are never that easy, and yet…
The Childhood of a Leader, a film loosely based on the Sartre novel, is ostensibly unspecified in its subject, especially since the time period doesn’t exactly line up with who we assume the child must be (I always remember Hitler’s birth year, 1889, since he shared it with both Charlie Chaplin and my maternal grandfather). And so, in some sense, it can be seen as more of a parable than a biographical drama.
When I began watching the film, I was keeping one eye on the screen and the other on some office work. That strategy came to an abrupt end, within seconds, since the musical score was astounding in itself, and set to newsreel footage of dramatic processions and events from the early 20th century. The music was such a beautiful assault that I had to pause the disc and look up the composer, who turned out to be Scott Walker, the reclusive 60’s rocker, who has since moved on to a much more personal, and often dissonant, voice and sound. His music is used sparingly after the opening credits, as director Brady Corbet (acting credits in Clouds of Sils Maria and Funny Games) wisely knows that his story is powerful enough without having to lean on Walker’s singular music.
The movie tracks, in long takes, Steadicam shots, and luscious, Rembrandt- like compositions, an odd young boy, often mistaken for a beautiful young girl, who frustrates his parents, played by Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones), who is an attaché to President Woodrow Wilson, with his impudent and sometimes violently antisocial behavior. If I understand correctly, the boy’s character is an amalgam, the main ingredients being Mussolini and that other, bigger momser, Hitler.
Many of the inferences we must make are based on glancing, oblique scenes, including Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis, Twilight) playing two roles. His first part is a friend of the boy’s father, and he seems rather ineffectual, but the second part is something else altogether, and doesn’t emerge until the final minutes of the film. The assumption is that this character is the boy grown up, perhaps bald like Mussolini, or maybe with a shaved head, in partial reference to both Hitler and modern-day neo-Nazis.
The Childhood of a Leader is a singularly dramatic experience, right down to the jarring credit screens and a return to that Bartokian score of Scott Walker. – [DVD]
DVD Release Date: 11/22/16