Cinematic Releases: The Young Karl Marx (2018) - Reviewed

Karl Marx is typically portrayed as frenzied and fervent, but not in Raoul Peck’s well-tempered biopic about the founders of the Communist movement. The Young Karl Marx is as much a love story as a polemic, in which the twenty-something firebrand-to-be (August Diehl) spends as much time simmering (and occasionally smoldering) with his bride Jenny von Westphalen (Vicky Krieps) as with his comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske).This is a film where pillow talk is sometimes as important as political rhetoric insofar as it reveals the motivations of characters who are flesh and blood as much as brain and broadside. 

This is not meant to be a criticism of Peck’s low-key treatment, for the director assures us that he has meticulously researched the players’ journals and correspondence, giving us a unique, behind-the-scenes domestic glimpse into how a world-shattering document like the Communist Manifesto came to be. Discussing his cinematic approach, Peck said “I knew I couldn’t tell the story of the older Karl Marx--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.” 

Peck’s approach works for the most part, though some audiences may feel unfulfilled by the film’s overall tranquility. Even the roughshod scenes involving disgruntled Irish factory workers are relatively tame in comparison with similar depictions in other films on revolution and rebellion. But this is not to say that the scenes are not brutally compelling. It is clear in The Young Karl Marx that Peck has a deep sympathy with the oppressed workers who appear as counterpoint and chorus to the principal players in this film. Hannah Steele is particularly effective as the Irish mill-worker Mary Burns. 

Raoul Peck is a passionate filmmaker for whom human rights and social justice are foregrounded, as in his two most acclaimed earlier offerings, like I Am Not Your Negro (2016, about James Baldwin) and Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1990, about the Congolese leader--the Haitian-born Peck grew up in the Belgian Congo during the nation’s transition from colonialism to self-rule). In The Young Karl Marx, he focuses on the white-hot moment in the pivotal year 1848 when two idealistic young men wrote a document that changed the world. Peck does not comment on how Marxian ideals have been tainted over the past century and a half by the excesses of Stalinism or Maoism. The film’s final scene is a montage of how the struggle continued over the years, in the form of student protests in the 1960s and of more contemporary resistance to oppression suffered by blacks and immigrants. 

La lutte continue.

-Edward Moran