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The Childhood Of A Leader: what an indie film tells us about the roots of fascism
Brady Corbet’s directorial debut takes a chilling look at the DNA of a megalomaniac. He explains why it couldn’t be more timely in the age of Trump
The Childhood Of A Leader, Brady Corbet’s film about the roots of a fascist megalomaniac, is loud. The orchestral score, by 1960s pop crooner-turned-avant garde hero Scott Walker, bludgeons you so hard it’s as if the sound levels have been hijacked. In actual fact they were. “We mixed it purposefully outside of the Dolby standard; it’s about 5% louder than is generally allowed,” says the 27-year-old director. “The Dolby guy came in to master it and I was like, ‘Cool, thanks a lot!’ Then he left and I was like, ‘OK, turn it up!’ I like extremes. Growing up, I liked opera and I liked Fugazi. I liked anybody who gets to the end of the show and their knuckles are bleeding.”
The sonic battering befits the film – a big, bold, allegorical warning from history, all the more unsettling in context of today’s global swings to the right. Set in the French countryside in 1918, The Childhood Of A Leader introduces us to Prescott, an unruly, effeminate nine-year-old boy (Tom Sweet) whose father is an American diplomat (Game Of Thrones’s Liam Cunningham) for Woodrow Wilson, working on the Treaty of Versailles. In a perpetual power struggle with his parents and shaped by the political tumult around him, the boy’s troubling behaviour in these early years hints at the dictatorial figure he will later become. Bérénice Bejo plays the boy’s mother, Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin his teacher, and Robert Pattinson pops up as an associate of his father. At last year’s Venice film festival it won best debut film and best debut director. Before presenting Corbet an award, director Jonathan Demme told the audience the film brought to mind the work of the young Orson Welles, thanks to its “thrilling and unbridled cinematics”.
Like Welles, Corbet is also an actor. He doesn’t appear in his own movie but has spent more than a decade acting in films for celebrated auteurs: Michael Haneke (Funny Games), Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin), Lars von Trier (Melancholia). Corbet, who grew up in Arizona, got into arthouse cinema early and never looked back. “I try to keep my record clean,” he says over coffee in Covent Garden, referring to his rejection of more commercial opportunities. “Since I was young I took pride in my work. I wanted the majority of things I did to reflect my interests.”
The Childhood Of A Leader was inspired by Margaret MacMillan’s book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World, about the Paris peace conference, which, as Corbet says, set modern fascism in motion. He read it more than a decade ago in the midst of the Iraq conflict and, struck by its contemporary parallels, began writing a story about a young boy’s formative experiences to paint a big picture of political sickness. It was an ambitious project – a first-time American film-maker directing a European film, starring a child, is a big ask of financiers. But, after encouragement from his wife, film-maker Mona Fastvold, Corbet eventually got funding and shot it for $5m at a chateau in Budapest.
While the film studies the child and his confrontations, it’s not a matter of simple cause and effect, says Corbet. “My idea was that we would talk about how the era shapes the man, and for the film to occasionally leave the character and look at other hierarchies and abuse of power that exist in tiny ways and tiny gestures. The film is supposed to demonstrate these subtle shifts in the power dynamic depending on someone’s socioeconomic status or position or belief system. It’s really about how the depression of the period created a severity of character.”
It’s unavoidable, he says, that despite writing it years ago, it’s reflective of the times, but he didn’t expect Trump. “It’s pretty wild, I gotta say,” he responds to the fact that it’s coming out in the midst of Trumpmania. Regardless of whether Trump gets elected, he says, “the damage is already done. You have so many disenfranchised young, poor people that were just starting to feel like they were about to get a leg up in the world, and then all of a sudden they have this silly showman attacking their communities. It’s devastating.”
He lambasts the left-wing media as well as the right for all the Trump image-building, and his views on cinema are just as principled – Corbet is all but dismissive of mainstream entertainment. If it’s not art, he’s not interested. “In America, I find it disappointing that a lot of our biggest talents are not devoting their talents to slightly more radical material,” he says. “I’m yearning for people to push the medium forward.” The Childhood Of A Leader isn’t one for the multiplexes, but it’s a beautifully studied, arresting couple of hours that feels at times like 1970s Kubrick. Corbet certainly puts his money where his mouth is. Just watch out for that volume.
The Childhood Of A Leader is in selected cinemas from Friday 19 August