“Young Karl Marx” – A head of his time [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Young Karl Marx,” the multi-national film directed by Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro), who co-wrote the screenplay with Pascal Bonitzer, is a very ambitious film. Breathing life into the historic characters of Karl Marx and his, shall we say, co-star Friedrich Engels is a gargantuan task. Peck attempts, and mostly succeeds, in presenting Marx and his entourage as anti-establishment intellectual rabble-rousers but also as individuals struggling to support themselves and their families financially and find their rightful place in a world that is in the beginning stages of overthrowing the old order.
Bushy-headed Marx was the product of a middle-class family who followed an academic route, obtaining several advanced degrees, including law and a doctorate in philosophy. He was especially in thrall to the writings of Hegel, the leading German philosopher of the time. He very much supported Hegelian dialectics—which was the process of using logic to bring together opposing positions; he was less enthusiastic about Hegel’s belief in metaphysics, or the nature of being with its religious and spiritual overtones. Marx’s membership in the Young Hegelian Society, a liberal “free thinking” organization, would play a major role in his inability to get an academic position when the Austrian government began suppressing such groups.
Unable to teach, Marx began writing for radical newspapers and magazines, but his success there was also stymied by the government in their crackdown on the liberal press. He and his wife Jenny, the daughter of an aristocratic Austrian family, then moved to Paris where he began to write for a new, radical journal, expounding for the first time his belief that the proletariat would lead the world revolution, and, for the first time, embracing communism, a concept that was put forward formally during the Enlightenment in the 18th century but which could also be traced back to Thomas More in his major work, Utopia. His life in Paris is also significant because it is there that he first encountered Friedrich Engels, the young heir to a textile manufacturing magnate. Engels, having seen close up the relationship between owner and worker, was repulsed. It was Engels’s highly-regarded and even-handed study called The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844 that bonded them henceforth.
Both joined other radical organizations, most significantly a secret Utopian Socialist group called the League of the Just, and both continued to refine and reshape their views of the ideal society, one that significantly held no room for optimism or utopian ideals. Even within radical organizations, they were outliers.
This was an era of autocratic, monarchic governments (including France where the monarchy had been restored) that were still reeling from the pan-European effects of the French revolution. Marx, now on the cusp of formulating his theory on Political Economy, the basis for his later three-volume Das Kapital, soon became persona non-grata in France as well, and he and his family were exiled to Belgium. As the League for the Just expanded to Belgium, Marx convinced them that they must come out in the open if they were to be effective in promoting the overthrow of the existing political structure. To that end, he and Engels presented their Communist Manifesto in 1848 laying the groundwork for overthrowing capitalist society by the working class (the proletariat). The timing could not have been more perfect because it dovetailed with the Revolutions of 1848 that upended the governments of Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and France. Marx was 30 years old.
In essence, all of the above is a primer, and much is primitively set out, like my feeble attempt to define (and understand) Hegelian philosophy. Nevertheless, the more you know going into the film, the more you will get out of it. Not surprisingly, it is an extremely talky film with lots of subtitles as most of the film is either in German or French, with a bit of English scattered here and there.
The characters are engaging and the actors playing them are terrific. August Diehl (Marx) brings dark, brooding to his character, never losing sight of Marx’s love for family and need to develop his ideas. Stefan Konarske (Engels) is believable as a young man repulsed by his family’s exploitation of the working class and sets out to bring attention to the ills society is thrusting on the poor. Although presented somewhat as Marx’s supporting cast, Konarske shows that Engels was the equal and suitable dialectical partner to Marx. Vicky Krieps as Jenny Marx, valiantly struggles against a poorly written role to rise above the “wife as helpmate” stereotype; and Hannah Steele as Engels’s partner Mary Burns, lights the screen with her fiery radical assurance, every bit Engels’s equal.
It is a weakness in the script that too many philosophical and political giants of the era, particularly French philosopher Joseph Proudhon who advocated the elimination of all property ownership, become talking points rather than proper antagonists for the main characters. Nevertheless, for the most part, Peck succeeds in shining a light on an era and two seminal characters who became the very definition of that time and the century to come.
The production values—cinematography, costumes, production design—are all first rate. His end credits, however, are distracting and diminish rather than heighten the impact of the story told on screen as he plays a clip show of more modern-day examples of Marx’s principles over a sound track of Bob Dylan singing “Like a Rolling Stone.” Most importantly, even though the film occasionally drags (or maybe it was only my attention span), it is rarely boring. Go see this for the characters, the story, and very much for the historical context.
In German, French, and English with subtitles.
Opening Friday, February 23 at the Laemmle Royal.