The Childhood of a Leader is a fascinating piece of cinema, especially given it’s not only a debut piece of work, but the debut piece of work from an actor best known for playing Alan Tracy in the execrable Jonathan Frakes’ Thunderbirds movie.
Brady Corbet’s film is about the birth of fascism. Not in a political sense of being a historical depiction of the rise of Adolf Hitler, but rather the human genesis of a fascist mind. It plays out in the form of a strange psychodrama, one with almost verite touches in its final moments, strange not just thanks to it’s unusual post-World War One setting but in how it pivots around the key developmental moments of a young boy.
Trying to describe the very premise of The Childhood of a Leader would be extraordinarily difficult, something Corbet was acutely aware of when he started writing the script; he at first pulled back on it, convinced thematically it was “too big” for a debut feature, but his wife Mona Fastvold encouraged him to continue and together they developed the screenplay.
The central boy in question, Prescott (Tom Sweet), is the son of an American diplomat at the very end of the Great War (unnamed but played by Liam Cunningham) and his French wife (Berenice Bejo). In the midst of negotiations taking place that would form the Treaty of Versailles, Corbet’s picture captures the stark, erratic and unusual child development of a boy we know has an important future. The very word ‘leader’ implies much from the title; this isn’t the childhood of a President or a Prime Minister, this is the childhood of a leader. Even not knowing Corbet’s subtextual aspirations going in, ‘leader’ suggests strength, suggests dominance, suggests manifest destiny.
None of these facets you would credit with Prescott as a child. He is androgynous to the point numerous adults mistake him for a girl, with a cherubic face and shoulder length, blonde hair which gives him an effete complexion. He is withdrawn and quiet. He wets the bed. He throws stones at other children and refuses to apologise in the sight of God, represented by a grandfatherly French priest. He doesn’t understand social and even sexual boundaries, even at such a young age; in casually touching the breast of his comely young English tutor with whom he’s studying French, Prescott simply does not understand her startled and disturbed response and admonishment that he has done wrong. Child actor Sweet does a fine job in conveying youthful sociopathy at work in this detached, unusual boy.
Throughout, Corbet is pushing you to question, with the knowledge of foresight around this child, precisely what makes him into a leader. How does he gets from A to B, assuming B is a very dark future? A lot stems from his cold, brittle and un-loved surroundings. His father is older, sternly paternal and frequently absent, quite possibly also having sexual relations with his aforementioned tutor Ada (another element Prescott picks up on and which only serves to cloud his boundaries when it comes to sexual appropriateness). His mother is present in the household but absent in a different way, a beacon of repressed thought; unable to form a maternal bond with her child (she at one point tells her husband bearing him “almost killed me”) and resentful of the carefree life she was unable to enjoy before marriage, she frequently rebukes and distances herself from Prescott. The boy’s only source of care and kindness comes from old maid Mona, who shows him the only warmth he understands.
The psychology of how Prescott later becomes a fascist dictator is formed in these childhood moments, described in chapter headings as ‘tantrums’. That almost feels as if Corbet is mocking the import of Prescott’s disturbed, arrested development; indeed his whole picture has a subversive level of film school verve to it, a raw and untempered edge which sometimes threatens to drown his direction in pretentiousness but more often than not adds to the creeping sense of unease that punctuates almost every frame. The Childhood of a Leader is slow, deliberate and open to levels of interpretation, but it maintains the ability to be deeply unsettling with a constant sense of violence lurking in the corners of the stark, crumbling French house the family live in.
One could easily find a metaphor in the set design, given the majority of the picture takes place inside this big old house, requisitioned it seems by the American diplomat seeking to draw the devastating global war to a climax. The house almost feels representative of a dying Europe, the last vestiges of an old order tore up by four years of hellish warfare; at one point, Prescott absently walks down a corridor filled with towering maps of Europe and the world, drifting his finger across them like a statement of intent, even subconsciously. The omens are clear and present and only in one scene does Corbet’s script make them apparent; a meeting of diplomatic minds in Cunningham’s home whereby they discuss, arrogantly, the need for Versailles to strip the German soul and economy of its very life blood. Reparations become a tool of vengeance in these men’s hearts, not justice.
Anyone who paid attention to history in school, certainly in England, will be aware that the Treaty of Versailles and its punishing reparations on Germany in no small part gave rise to the social and economic conditions that allowed Hitler and the Nazi party’s rise to power. Corbet has been very clear in press interviews how Prescott is not meant to represent a young Hitler but rather a singular fascist demagogue, an amalgamation of Hitler, Mussolini et al, and his own ultimate creation. The men in that room, planning Germany’s economic and social evisceration, even discuss the power of Marxism and its inevitable journey towards total Communism, but they ignore or perhaps entirely miss the power of a leader with rhetoric, impulse and a platform to execute ‘the will of the people’.
We never see Prescott’s journey to becoming that demagogue we briefly glimpse in the Kafka-esque new world he ends up creating, in the presumed ashes of Versailles, but we can assume the childhood psychology of a deeply troubled boy who ultimately ends up, quite possibly, a murderer is a major influence. Corbet’s film raises a multitude of questions about the nature of nature verses nurture indeed, and fuses them with a myriad of complicated themes, from parenthood to sexuality through strongly to religion.
The picture is riven with Christian iconography, whether it’s painted on Bejo’s forehead or part of the domed window adorning the ceiling of a building, and in his climactic tantrum as a boy, Prescott rejects God and refuses to pray. He sings it from the rooftops, almost literally. His becomes a fascism not driven by religious or dogmatic fervour but sociopathic ego, but is it rooted in evil? Corbet doesn’t answer that question.
The Childhood of a Leader has its influences deep inside existential and classic sources. Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘The Wall’ being the primary one, which contains a short story of the same name about a young boy who journeys via Freudian psychoanalysis to fascist thought, a story crucially written in 1939 on the eve of World War Two, a conflict brought about as a consequence of a fascist leader.
One almost senses after watching Brady Corbet’s film that to ignore its warnings could be to our peril, and to ignore this new director may be equally foolish, given how much of a startlingly strange, unique and at times fearless picture this is.