I go to the cinema as often as I can but of late I rarely get interested or excited enough about a film to remember what I’ve seen a few days later, let alone want to blog about it (Case in point: Saw Woody Allen’s Cafe Society on Wednesday, was charmed enough at the time, but had forgotten about it by this weekend).
It’s something of an exception then to see a film that genuinely makes me leave the cinema wanting to talk about it, let alone wanting to go home and furiously Google it. The Childhood of a Leader is one of those films.
Even from the start, where the starkness and grandeur of just the opening credits suggests either (deserved) confidence or serious auteurial ego, it seems unbelievable that this is a debut film. From the trailer you might expect your standard, between-the-World-Wars, brooding period drama, with a touch of horror/thriller thrown in for good measure. But what you actually get is a Michael Haneke-esque film loosely based on Sartre, jacked-up with a booming score, unveiled over the course of a young boy’s three ‘tantrums’.
It begins with newsreel footage of the end of the First World War in Paris, with “Vive Wilson” signs on display, happy waving people, and blends seamlessly into this fictional film that sees an American bureaucrat transport his European wife and young son to rural France while he takes part in peace negotiations on the U.S. President’s behalf. All of this is accompanised by a more jarring narrative which looks to explore how a would-be dictator could be born in the same space and time as the Treaty of Versailles, and which in principal addresses the oft-asked question, alluded to in the film’s title: How could these sorts of things happen? What makes these sorts of people?
It’s the best kind of non-history historical film— those that aren’t real but use all of the most well-known history film powers of (in Robert Rosenstone’s words) compression, metaphor, and alteration, to allude to something that is; fictionalised, but very obviously and knowingly real. Its explicit intention is to collect all of the fragments of what we know about the birth and shaping of dictators and extremists (coincidence..?), throws in the question of nature versus nurture, to paint a (timely) portrait through an historical lens.
It’s a film that capitalises on all the things that you expect to see in these sorts of pop culture texts—whether you read it in terms of period drama or thinly-veiled horror—, all of the things we’ve been conditioned to think we are going to see in the childhoods of men who would become great ‘evil’. And yet it never rewards you— at least, not in the way you think it’s going to. It doesn’t answer questions or offer answers, it just is.
And the film comes to its climax while telling you nothing, only showing you what you already know; four men of indistinct nationality sit around a table discussing dates, passing around notes, making plans, while ominious looking red banners bearing vaugely agressive symbols hang on the walls. The Leader emerges from a car to crowds of adoring followers, and (visual and figurative) chaos ensues. It doesn’t need an explanation; we already know what this is and what happens next.
So yes, while most of the time the film does actually feel like “more of a mind-fuck than a historical drama”, it is also the latter in the best sort of postmodern way possible—its not real, but it’s real. Even so, it’s the kind of historical film that just sort of makes sense right now.