Interviews: Director Raoul Peck Talks About His Film The Young Karl Marx

With The Young Karl Marx, Raoul Peck adds another jewel to his crown as master of the biopic. But perhaps a royal allusion is the wrong metaphor for this Haitian-born director whose heart is decidedly with commoners, albeit extraordinary commoners like Patrice Lumumba and James Baldwin, and now Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In addition to his prolific filmography, Peck also served as Haiti’s Minister of Culture, an accolade that likely means nothing at all to the likes of Donald Trump, who thinks the Caribbean island republic is just another “shithole country.”

Asked about that comment at a recent New York City interview, Peck replied, magnanimously, that he was only interested in film projects that would challenge our perceptions of reality and help us understand our world better while appealing to the higher instincts of our nature.

This was the approach Peck took in making The Young Karl Marx. True to its historical reality, he shot various scenes in German, French, and English to reflect young Marx’s journeying across Europe in the late 1840s, during those crucial years when his collaboration with Friedrich Engels led to the publication of The Communist Manifesto.

“I knew I couldn’t tell the story of the old Karl Marx,” says Peck. “It’d be like cutting your arms and legs off and then trying to climb Mount Everest. Because no one’s ever made a film about Marx, and a director can’t and shouldn’t respond to almost a century of confusion, lies, and historic ‘facts’ that never happened. So I had to go back to the facts, to the reality, and try to go to the core of who Marx and Engels were and what actually happened at the time.”

To Peck, faithfulness to history and authenticity in acting are vital components in the truth-telling process. Creativity does not always imply license. “The fact that we shot in three languages is a way of showing credibility and reality,” he says. “And I didn’t go for fancy actors. I look for presence, not for celebrity. In the case of Vicki (Kreips), who plays Jenny Marx, there are lots of scenes where she has no dialogue at all. But there is a presence in the way she moves, the way she hugs, and so forth. That’s what I look for in casting my films.”

Peck and cowriter Pascal Bonitzer applied these same meticulous standards to the execution of the film’s screenplay. “We created the script out of the actual correspondence, the actual letters that Marx and Engels wrote to each other during this period,” he says. In this endeavor, Peck brought some of his own history into the process. The director, who grew up in the Belgian Congo, studied industrial engineering and economics in Berlin, at Marx and Engels’ old alma mater, Humboldt University. This was during the height of the Cold War, when the city was still divided by the infamous wall. (Peck would eventually win a film degree in 1988 from the German Film and Television Academy Berlin, and create his production company, Velvet Film, in that city.)

“Like many of my friends, both German and others,” he recalls, “I attended compulsory classes about Marx and his work...they were also an essential matter if one wanted to intelligently and ‘scientifically’ speak about almost any academic matter or debate in a city like the rebelliously spirited Berlin.”

These experiences played a large part in grounding Peck intellectually when he decided to make The Young Karl Marx. They especially helped him determine what kind of film he did not want to make. “Should I made an American-style ‘biopic’ with a somewhat surly but somehwat kindly tired-looking Marx speaking in English through his bushy beard in a vague political context while shedding a few tears at the successive deaths of his childen, and cheating on his wife? Absolutely not.”

True to his own dissenting nature, Peck is adamant that filmmakers need to “connect the dots” by exposing and confronting the contradictions and injustices within contemporary society. It is this conviction that compels Peck to make the kinds of films he makes. He declares: “Just as with James Baldwin and I Am Not Your Negro, I made a film about now, about today. .. It’s all about class struggle. That’s the crazy part of it. If you take certain chapters of The Communist Manifesto, it’s as if they were written for what happened in 2008...and for what is happening today. And what is bound to happen again...” 

-Edward Moran