Scott Walker The Childhood of a Leader

[4AD; 2016]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: film score
Others: Brady Corbet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bernard Herrmann, John Fowles, Walter Benjamin, Wilhem Reich

Across the haunting period between the two Great Wars, the aged composer Scott Walker exerts his lethal grip onto the presence of forlorn historical materials — an archive pulsing wildly with the foreboding nature of the over-coded State: fascism. During this roughly 20-year timeframe, a paranoid vector was structurally inscribed in the State-form developing after World War I. This is the stage for director Brady Corbet’s feature film debut The Childhood of a Leader and the site of Walker’s first O.S.T. work since his remarkable score for Pola X in 1999. A wholly difficult film, their collaboration pivots tensely around the development of the Treaty of Versailles, footnoted by an extreme historical transition marked by the transformation of geopolitical power, the emergence of global capitalism, and the endless recombination of the forces of collective resistance.

Set in the French countryside in the political climate of 1918, the film details the upbringing of Prescott, a rebellious young boy whose father is an American diplomat for Woodrow Wilson working on the Treaty. Against the backdrop of the speculative document that bludgeoned modernity into further war, the boy engages in an extended and tedious power struggle with his parents within the film’s primary location: the maze-like locality of the domestic home, the kitchen, the bedroom, the yard — the stage where the horrifyingly mundane war machine of childhood becomes rendered as the eternal referent for the fascist State-form.

Scott Walker’s classical malice and severity of style soundtrack the film in a Herrmann-esque fashion: loudly and allegorically, with short repeating patterns and novel deviations of instruments ostentatiously pronouncing themselves in bold strokes. With 46 string players and 16 brass, the orchestral battalion is thunderous enough such that the score becomes almost irresponsibly overlaid onto the film in a harsh battle between sound and image. This was intentional, as according to Corbet in a conversation with The Guardian, “We mixed it purposefully outside of the Dolby standard; it’s about 5% louder than is generally allowed.” He continued, “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.”

It’s hard to say how Corbet landed Walker as the scorist for his directorial debut, but the union is indeed uncanny, especially given Walker’s predilection for assembling literary, anthropological, and historical materials that he choruses over powerfully. This is easily seen in Bish Bosch’s grotesque continental characters (the “flagpole sitter,” the “scabby sachem,” the “sagamore wino”) or in the “widening gyres of history” of the biblical (Herod) and the cinematic (Brando) on his 2014 collaboration with Sunn O))), Soused. Regardless, Walker’s score carves out wide subterranean moments for scenes to sit within on “Dream sequence,” “RUN,” or “Printing press.” Yet perhaps more jarringly are the “Opening” and “Finale” pieces, using themes so severe in orientation and so viscerally loud in the theater that it breaks the filmic spectacle itself to produce a wholly other sensation.

Loosely based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story of the same name, a story published in 1939 as a collection of short stories titled The Wall, the The Childhood of a Leader’s sequencing of the boy’s tantrums and tense interactions with priests, houseworkers, and French teachers (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin) trickle up all the way to his public rebellion against the State officials who drafted the treaty itself. The boy becomes the referent of the fascist regimes that would result from the historical mishandling of reparations as a result of Versailles. The scenes enforce that fascism did not form in progressive stages, just as the leader wasn’t “developed” from the young boy. Rather, they appeared fully armed, a full stroke executed all at once, a primordial explication of sovereign violence found at the very core of early 20th century anthropological-historical material — and perhaps today’s as well. The emergence of the young boy and fascism unto global politics post-Versailles was also the emergence of ultra-institutional violence, the excess of State violence over-coded over the archaic power of identity being sketched disturbingly as the literal childhood of a leader.

Walker’s repeating, machinic string pulses and grotesque glissandos are arranged to evoke the piece-meal flow of the film; they speak to both the boy’s tantrums and the stark environments of the French countryside in Winter. They also do well to montage the film’s regular sequences of archival war footage. Fans of Walker can and should revel in these compositions outside of its film-ic context; it’s a terrifying and hypnotic listen. It’s clear that his severity and compositional control are a force of nature unto itself, similar to the boy’s utter power and presence becoming unshakeable and resilient against the power dynamics implicit within both local and global regimes. In fact, for those who appreciate Walker’s unique compositional agenda but find his episodically inclined voice tiresome, this score proves to be some of his most immersive and succinct work since Tilt.

An archaeology of violence rooted in the micro-politics of desire, the The Childhood of a Leader places classical and contemporary problems of political thought under crucial scrutiny, locating them in the home, in childhood. This is supported directly by Walker tensely arranging moods between heroic motifs, disturbing string passages, threaded by a general austerity of style. The sanguine tone of Walker’s themes score the pervasive familial and historical tension finding commonality in tantrums and political domination — the tension between the state and the War machine of the child. Still, it’s the film’s ending that stands as its most riveting moment, supported wholly and terrifyingly by the “Finale” piece. Despite all the score’s sonic deviations, the finale fearlessly releases a classic Walker moment when a brass fragment is literally broken and ripped out of the ensemble, only to be rendered absurd in wild color — a familiar tactic of Walker’s throughout his recent work. As armies march and assemble, the film makes it unclear which regime has ascended to become modernity’s fascist terror; perhaps the film even speculates an alternative history, where this regime didn’t arise out of Germany or Italy, but in the Allied powers. It’s the power and presence of Walker’s flawed, pseudo-totalist music that picks at this sore historical moment, speculating its resiliency, foretelling both childhood and fascism to be ghostly political precodes, a fierce explication of their overlap.

Most Read