This is a curious one. The Childhood of a Leader chronicles events in the life of a child destined to become a fascist dictator. Growing up in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in WW1 and partly revolving around the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, parallels to Hitler’s rise are obvious. It is clear, however, that this child is not Hitler and the film shouldn’t be thought of as biographical pertaining to any one particular fascist leader; rather, it is like an amalgamation of them.
It is nonetheless fascinating to see a story told from this perspective; a character study as such, showing the elements that mix in this child’s life to help form what he will become. Can we blame nature or nurture? Could his parents and those around him have affected his life differently, or was his future inevitable due to his inherent ego and controlling personality (both of which we see form during the film)?
This movie does not necessarily attempt to answer those questions, but it does give us food for thought on the issue. Newcomer Tom Sweet plays ‘the boy’, named Prescott, and this kid is good; one of the film’s main strengths, as his onscreen presence helps communicate a sense of foreboding unease. He always comes across as naturally charismatic and charming, with an unnerving confidence and piercing stare to go with it.
Prescott shows impressive intelligence and alarming insightfulness for a boy his age; something he does not entirely share with either of his parents, one of whom is a caring mother wanting to be her son’s main influence, the other an overbearing father too busy and/ or unwilling to spend time with his son. The former is played by French actress Bérénice Bejo, best known for her role as Peppy Miller in The Artist (2011), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Irish actor Liam Cunningham, whom many people may recognise from Game of Thrones, plays Prescott’s father.
One of the most immediately striking things about the film is its score by Scott Walker. Fast, aggressive, and intimidating, this soundtrack will be one of your lasting memories of the experience, as it captures the stark urgency and dread of what awaits in Prescott’s future. Though the film’s described as a ‘historical mystery drama’, one would be forgiven for thinking its score more in line with horror; and fittingly so, as we’re dealing with a horrific – if not overtly – overall theme.
Subtly touched upon, in one scene in particular, is the treatment of Germany in the immediate aftermath of WW1. It’s hinted that this harsh, bordering on arrogant tone from representatives of the rest of Europe (one of whom is Prescott’s father) towards their defeated foe influenced what Prescott was to become; a parallel to Hitler’s rise and the factors that led to WW2.
Debut director Brady Corbet has appeared as an actor in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (the 2007 version) and a selection of other films over the past decade, as well as appearing in American TV shows such as 24 and Law & Order; so this is an experienced hand in front of the camera if not behind it. For a first feature, The Childhood of a Leader is certainly an impressive feat; winning Best Debut and Best Director at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
Rounding out the core cast is Stacy Martin, a young actress most recently seen in Tale of Tales, whose stock has been gradually rising since appearing alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac; and Robert Pattinson, whose role here is a considerable departure from previous projects. Pattinson, while initially seeming only a supporting actor with not much to do, has a vital role in the film’s final scene that justifies his ‘big name’ presence.
In the end this film may bring accusations of pretentiousness – it does not explain everything nor wrap up the narrative with a neat resolution – but the ideas that Corbet communicates are something to be admired. These and a thumping, unforgettable soundtrack carry The Childhood of a Leader along at a good pace. Ultimately, it’s hard not to appreciate the experience.
8 / 10