This bizarre political fable turns the 20th century ultra-nationalist movement into a horror movie
by MATTHEW GAULT
Fascism, as an idea, had been kicking around Europe since the end of the 19th century. But World War I gave it the push it needed to become a viable political force. It’s a complex but extreme nationalist movement that dominated the middle of the 20th century and led to countless dead and wounded in World War II.
The historical, social and political circumstances that created fascism and allowed it to thrive are many. Minds smarter and sharper than mine have dedicated hundreds of pages and entire lives to the study of fascism and its consequences.
Now imagine someone took all that study and distilled it into a two hour movie. And not a documentary, but a fictional account of the rise of fascism in Europe in the form of a fable. That’s Childhood of a Leader — a fable storybook version where the filmmakers anthropomorphized fascism into an 10-year-old boy.
Really. Or at least … I think. Look, it’s a weird movie. It’s good — scary, odd, jarring and well crafted but deeply weird.
Childhood of a Leader promises to tell the story of a future fascist leader as he grows up in the interwar period. That’s important information to know going in and this is probably the only time I felt I needed to know the premise of a film before watching it.
In my opinion, if the audience doesn’t know that the little terror in the movie will grow up to be a fascist tyrant then the story loses its luster. The promise of how Childhood of a Leader will end, and what it will show of the character’s future, is a big part of what keeps you watching.
The film is set around the holiday season of 1918 in the countryside outside Versailles, France. It focuses on a little blond haired boy who’ll grow up to be a fascist leader. His mother is a German-born world traveler who speaks four languages. His father is an American assistant to Robert Lansing, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state.
The family is in Versailles to assist the administration in the peace talks so the small boy — and no, he doesn’t have a name until the very end of the picture — has a front row seat as politicians reshaped the world and set the stage for the next conflict.
The boy’s father is a strange and incompetent figure. He can’t speak French, though his wife is fluent, can’t read a map and never seems to get a word in edgewise with his superiors. He’s completely powerless both in the administration and at home. You see, it’s not the father or the mother who runs things in the house — it’s the little blond boy.
The filmmakers divided Childhood of a Leader into three acts, marked off by three different tantrums the boy throws to secure power in his household and destroy his parents.
In the first scene, he hurls rocks from the cover of bushes at parishioners as they leave a church. In the next, he wanders naked around the house while his father hosts foreign dignitaries then locks himself in his room and refuses to eat or speak to anyone. The third I’ll let you save for yourself, but it goes above and beyond mere childhood pranks.
This is very odd film. It defies categorization. Wikipedia calls it a “historical mystery drama” while Netflix calls it “cerebral, dark, ominous” and a “horror movie.” Those are all true … to a point. The only mystery is who this kid is and who he’ll become and the answer may disappoint or confuse.
But the answers are there, baked into every scene.
It does feel like a horror film more than anything else though, in part because of aging pop star turned experimental musician Scott Walker’s amazing soundtrack. Discordant, screeching violins swell as the young boy wanders the halls of his French home and we know, just know, that he’s about to do something awful.
The cinematography and direction also make it feel like a horror film. There’s no real character for the audience to latch on to or follow, no point of view to watch the scenes unfold through.
Everything feels removed and distant. The director shot scenes through windows and doorways and it always feels as if we’re watching something we’re not supposed to.
It’s like watching an Omen prequel where Damien is an American diplomat’s kid during the interwar period as directed by Gus Van Sant. It’s hard to process what the movie is actually about and what the audience will take away.
I thought about it long and hard and came to the conclusion that it’s a fable — a fictitious tale meant to convey a simple moral message. But Childhood of a Leader is for adults. It’s a storybook about fascism written for big kids.
First, Childhood of a Leader is broken apart into simple acts with simple titles as in a children’s story. Second, the important characters don’t have names beyond what they are. The mother is mother, the father is father and the child is the child. Looking over the IMDB page, the other characters are all listed in the same way. There’s the Teacher, Priest, Economist, et al.
And lastly, and I think most important, are the pieces of the Treaty of Versailles the film seems to focus on. The audience witnesses a few key bits of the discussions that would shape Europe for the rest of the century and break it apart once again. In these moments, the characters make grand pronouncements that sound like the moral at the end of an Aesop tale.
“That’s the tragedy of war,” the father explains. “Not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good.”
“We will force the world to be a better place. Mark my words,” an unnamed American functionary says during a later meeting.
The little boy runs his hands over maps of Europe, maps he knows his father doesn’t understand. His listens as the diplomats discuss the merits of communism and Bolshevism. He lingers in the wings as the Americans and British talk about taking coal resources away from Germany, to make sure it won’t ever re-arm again.
The little kid who would be a fascist listens to it all, absorbs the political violence and theories of the interwar period and turns it into a path to power. A path he opens up with a violent and symbolic act toward the end of the film.
I can’t say more about the whole without spoiling the ending and I’m not going to do that here. But I will say I think all the answers to the final shots mysteries are in the movie if you look for them. There’s a good reason that actor is playing that part and why he was the first person up the stairs.
Childhood of a Leader is a bit of a mystery, a bit of a horror film and a bit of an arthouse oddity.
It’s not a period piece, not really, because these characters aren’t real. The authoritarian the boy becomes isn’t any one leader, but an amalgamation.
He’s a myth. So to, is this childhood, which the screenwriters pieced together from the works of John Fowles, Jean-Paul Sartre and the lives of actual fascist dictators.
All the little bits are true, even if the whole isn’t.