The Childhood of a Leader concerns the roughshod upbringing of a young American living in France during World War I (our review here). The film does its best to present the unnamed child as a victim – of strict parents, a society regressing due to fear, a worldview steadily tainted by spectres of authoritarianism. It’s revealed later that the child has grown up to become the fascist leader of an unnamed European country, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles a turning point in his transition to monstrousness. It’s tailor-made art-house fare: mostly shot in barely-lit corridors, nobody is happy, and the credits feature a bibliography that includes works by Jean-Paul Sartre and John Fowles.
Adding to the prestige is a score supplied by the great Scott Walker. Only his second in his entire career, the score telegraphs (in ways both subtle and decidedly less so) the latent rage and eventual psychopathy of the narrative’s lead. Listening to the score outside of the context of the film, it’s easily imaginable as a soundtrack to a slowly unravelling mind. While ‘Opening’ plays, with its low-end mammoth-like stabs and slightly atonal horns towards the end, a black-and-white Saul Bass title sequence leading right into an Alfred Hitchcock cameo is effortlessly forseeable.
‘Post Meeting’ feels like the exact moment a mind snaps, as various motifs introduced over the course of the score are reintroduced in ways that initially seem random – punctuated by terse bass-drum hits and finishing with a slightly more lyrical but nonetheless sinister percussion line. ‘Dream Sequence’ is suitably nightmarish and reminiscent of his work with the drone metal band Sunn O))). No melody or percussive element to speak of, merely an Antarctic drone coupled with a slowed-down moan that resembles a didgeridoo stuffed full of mud.
Film scores are popular for those looking for a soundtrack for their next study session or for unwinding into sleep. Walker’s score is entirely suitable for either of those activities, as the concept behind it defy any temptation to fade into the background. I’d be quicker to recommend Walker’s first score for 1999’s Pola X, though the ideas behind this latest score feel more potent despite its brevity. For the time being, Childhood of a Leader remains a fascinating listen and suggests some interesting possibilities for when Walker releases a follow-up proper to 2012’s Bisch Bosch.