Film Review: The Young Karl Marx (2018)
Directed by: Raoul Peck
Review by: Belle McIntyre
Raoul Peck can be depended upon to make films about difficult and controversial subjects which reflect his passionate involvement in social justice. Following close on the heels of I Am Not Your Negro based on the unfinished writings of James Baldwin, this smart, good-looking biopic is many things. It is a historical period piece, laced with philosophical theorizing, a “bromance” of sorts between Marx and Engels, a human story of two idealistic firebrands struggling to formulate and promote their revolutionary ideas while balancing their personal lives in a time of roiling political and social upheaval. And most relevant for today, it is a story of ideologies and the difficulty of applying well-constructed organizing formulas to the unruly disorganized and all-too-human realities of society and government.
The opening scenes set the stage for the need for change as we see desperately poor people gathering deadwood in the woods being beaten and arrested for stealing in the Germany of the early 1840’s. The industrial revolution has created huge upheavals for everyone, and the good could arguably be equal to the bad. The winners, the few, have won big and the losers, mostly the workers, have been severely disadvantaged and disempowered. Sound familiar? Marx (August Diehl), is a liberal journalist in Cologne, Germany whose writings are about conditions of the workers are raising some red flags. When things become too uncomfortable for him and his wife, Jenny (Vicky Krieps), and their daughter - they move to Paris under the auspices of Arnold Ruge, the editor of a scholarly journal who publishes Marx’s writing.
It is in Paris where Marx finally meets Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), fin 1944. The two men were familiar with each other’s work but did not share the same points of view and Marx, in particular, mistrusts Engel’s bona fides since Engels is the scion of a wealthy Manchester factory owner, who employs many underpaid dissatisfied workers. However, both men have a grudging respect for the other’s intelligence and writing. And that is what carries the day. In short-order all suspicion is dispatched in floods of exchanged idea and the two are in lockstep ever after. There is a somewhat unlikely depiction of the two new comrades evading some dubious gendarmes on the street, ducking down alleys and over walls in what looks like an excerpt from a caper movie. When they meet back up they go on such a drinking binge that poor Marx finds himself retching in the street and Engels ends up sleeping on the floor of Marx’s apartment. This is how friendships are forged. The deal is sealed.
The pairing of these two brilliant minds and the synergy between them is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Marx, the more cerebral, believed fervently that a manifesto was essential for the workers to have a concrete idea of the totality that their movement was a part of. Engels was much more of an activist who wanted to see concrete actions by and for the workers. Their personal styles could not have been more different. Marx, dark-haired and slightly scruffy looks every inch of the driven intellectual. Engel’s pale blond boyish features, patrician mannerisms and dandyish style of dressing made him an unlikely-looking champion of the working class.
The various stages of the movement, changes in leadership and alliances, disagreements between factions, evolutions in ideology, and political fallout all feel incredibly relevant to our political landscape today. But lest you imagine there might be too much theoretical bantering and intellectual haranguing, Peck cleverly leavens it with the personal travails of the Marx’s financial challenges, growing family and necessary moves from country to country when Marx’s fame becomes a liability. The other personal story involves the schism between Engels and his father and his marriage to Mary (Hannah Steele) the rebellious Irish factory worker who his father fired and who becomes a soldier in the workers movement. My point here is that there is plenty of information about the political and intellectual activities of that period which have left such an indelible mark on our history, and which is probably not so well-understood by most people who are not students of political science. But it is delivered in lively and interesting ways so as to not be too burdensome.
The acting is top notch, with August Diehl, as Marx and Stefan Konarske’s Engels turning in very compelling and engaging performances as well as the supporting actors. Sets and costumes feel totally authentic and the cinematography has all the tonal qualities and shadowy lighting that make good period dramas so visually appealing. It is history delivered and wrapped in entertainment. I left feeling smarter and better informed.