The Young Karl Marx

It’s truly extraordinary to think that only now, 200 years after his birth, is Karl Marx getting the big screen treatment – after all, Che Guevara, Marxism’s enduring poster boy, has already been the subject of two notable biopics, one of them a two-parter. This is no one-man show, however, and much as 2011’s A Dangerous Method explored the early development of psychoanalysis through the sporadic collaborations of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung so does The Young Karl Marx chart the founding of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ as realised by Marx and his comrade Friedrich Engels. 

We meet Marx (August Diehl) in Cologne, where his tenure at The Rheinische Zeitung and his patience with the Young Hegelians who run it are brought to an abrupt end when the newspaper’s offices are ransacked and its staff arrested. While Marx retreats to France, across the channel in Manchester another German, Engels (Stefan Konarske), is also moved to action when he witnesses a young woman (Hannah Steele) being dismissed from his father’s cotton mill. They cross paths in Paris, and although initially dismissive of one another it isn’t long before they become professionally interdependent. 

Unlike their contemporaries – anarchists and low-level agitators such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet), author of The Poverty of Philosophy – the pair’s clarity of thought and uncompromising language puts Marx and Engels in the authority’s crosshairs. The former is expelled from Paris while the latter is reprimanded in Manchester by his father, interrupting their work and putting added pressure on Marx’ wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) and their young family, now relocated to Brussels.  It isn’t until Engels encounters the League of the Just – a secret socialist society based in London – that the two reunite and conceive of a new, communist manifesto.

The rest, as they say, is history – or is it? Not only did Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel argue that history had already culminated in the relative freedoms of King Friedrich Wilhelm III’s Prussia but that hidden within its span remained forgotten wisdoms yet to be recovered[1]. This is relevant for two reasons: firstly, Hegel was a hugely influential philosopher and informed Marx’ dialectical process of reasoning through contradiction and critique to arrive at a greater truth; and secondly, he did so whilst teaching at Humboldt University in Berlin, where one Raoul Peck would go on to study engineering and economics nearly two centuries later.

The Young Karl Marx shows this dialectic approach in action, both in Marx’ discussions with Engels and his dramatic divergence from Hegelian theory – namely that the natural conclusion of history is economic freedom rather than freedom of thought. Every argument receives a riposte – hence, their Critique of the Critical Critique – as the pair scrutinise one another, and the works of their contemporaries, in order to perfect their theory and synthesise a new, more material approach. This is seen most explicitly in Marx’ frustrated view of Proudhon, who he envisages as two men, one who thinks in abstract terms and the other who sees true poverty – only the latter of which he deems worth defending.

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Enter Peck, who not only incorporates these ideas into his film but his filmmaking. An historian in the Hegelian mould, it would seem he’s unearthed one such pearl of wisdom himself – Marx and Engels’ ‘The Communist Manifesto’ – and wishes to extrapolate its relevance to the world today. Might Marx have been lost to history, even as the Marxist revolutionaries he inspired came to shape it? Certainly, here in the West communism remains as controversial an ideology as ever, immediately invoking the atrocities committed under the authoritarian regimes of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and the Khmer Rouge.

Cinema, inevitably, has had a role in this enduring anathema. Germany’s Fritz Lang and Russia’s Sergei Eisenstein grappled with communist themes and imagery in Metropolis and Battleship Potemkin respectively, but it was decades before each film overcame cries of propaganda to achieve widespread acclaim beyond their national borders. Elsewhere, audiences had little else to engage with than one dimensional communist villains – certainly nothing to challenge their pre-existing worldview. Long after the entertainment industry blacklists of the 1940s and ‘50s, Hollywood remains a capitalist enterprise that – while more accommodating of political discourse and discord – can still be controlling and exploitative. But what of Marx?

For Peck, Marx is the key to unlocking society – a “hint from a long history”, as he describes it. His intention is to re-contextualise Marx and Engels for a new generation; if not to make them cool, despite the pair’s surprisingly bromantic portrayal, then at least to make them credible, as concerned with friendship, family and finances as they are with philosophy and politics. By presenting Karl, Friedrich and Jenny as real, red-blooded revolutionaries who railed against their privileged upbringings in solidarity with the poor and oppressed Peck hopes to encourage others to do the same. “Otherwise you're just a puppet following the next populist who promises you paradise.”[2]

It took Peck nearly ten years to get The Young Karl Marx made, even in Europe, having conceived of it around the same time as I Am Not Your Negro, his not uncontroversial BAFTA-winning documentary about James Baldwin. (When it scored higher on Metacritic than IMDb it seemed to some that vote brigading might be to blame – yet it was still financed first.) In many respects the two films couldn’t be more different – one’s a documentary, to begin with, while the other’s a drama – but to Peck both Baldwin and Marx share a common anti-capitalist cause.

“Race is just one emanation of capitalism”, he told The Independent. For Peck it’s not necessarily about skin-colour; “it’s about capitalism doing its job, separating people, dividing, and maintaining the status quo of those who want to protect their privilege.”[3] More than this, I Am Not Your Negro and The Young Karl Marx serve to reclaim and reframe their subjects using their own words: in the former this is achieved by adapting Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript ‘Remember This House’, while for the latter Peck and his co-writer Pascal Bonitzer returned to Marx’ original correspondence with Engels, lending the film both an historical and emotional integrity. 

Because Peck isn’t making art for art’s sake – the Hegelian in him wouldn’t allow it. Nor for that matter would Proudhon, who foresees art as a collective, for the collective. Rather, he’s a political activist in his own right who, like Marx, recognises the poverty of philosophy. Born in Haiti, raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo and educated in New York, France and Germany while his father worked at the United Nations, he knows that democracy is something to be protected and that populists aren’t to be trusted. Having once fled a dictatorship Peck later returned to his home country to serve as Minister of Culture, resigning the following year in protest of the then President. Marx would be proud – after all, the point isn’t to interpret the world, but to change it.

Steven Neish

May 2018




All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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