Engage with director Raoul Peck, is beautiful, well-acted, sincerely intentioned, The Young Karl Marx, with the benefit of historical hindsight, rather a bittersweet endeavour. It is not difficult to do: Peck clever, the plots of film-making, makes it potentially arcane policy discussions to sing with urgency, and, above all, airs parchment reek of academic fustiness.
But if the ideas are made accessible to all, and at times almost exciting, placed in their context (dutifully overliteralised with frequent signs that tell us exactly which city you’re in, what month and what year) anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the subsequent history may find their ability to celebrate the emotional crescendoes of this story a bit compromised. Not the fault of Marx personally for the atrocities of the 20th Century, the communism have difficulties uncomplicatedly cheerlead the birth of the ideology of the most influential of the first text.
Between this and The Young Pope, we are seeing a new trend where “young” becomes essentially a euphemism for ‘sexy’
The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 by Marx (August Diehl) and Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), was a pamphlet that laid out the fundamental ideas of Marx would spend the rest of his life, extending, in his never-completed masterpiece, Das Kapital. The latter title, however, is outside of the scope of Pecking the biopic, which culminates in the printing of the ‘Manifesto’ as a sort of triumphal opening salvo in the revolution to come.
This narrowed focus allows you to Peck and co-writer Pascal bonitzer’s film that has not only to spend the film of two hours in length (a bit too) luxuriantly that describes the infighting and internal divisions that dogged the nascent Communist League, but also to present a view of a vigorous and attractive Marx, against the two-tone moustache, the elder statesman of the popular consciousness. Between this and The Younger Pope, perhaps we are witnessing a new trend, with which ‘young people’ becomes essentially a euphemism for ‘sexy’ and ‘sexy Karl Marx, at least, as interpreted by the not unhandsome Diehl, is not the contradiction it might first appear.
In fact, one of the film’s unexpected strengths lies in its twin love stories, with Marx, his wife Jenny (Cologne Vicky Krieps) gave a nice line in ready intelligence that often disarms the men around her. And Engels’ lover Mary Burns (Wolf Hall Hannah Steele), a representative from the Irish red that is the first time rejected from the Manchester factory of Marx, the father owns, is portrayed as a sort of “cloak and sword “revolutionary”. Apart from the interesting, inverse class disparities in these two reports there is no doubt a historical basis for much of the film’s embellishment in this sense, but the addition of well-drawn, intelligent women is welcome-even if it was more of a fantasy.
Marx + Engels: Vampire Hunters?
But as in every story of the fathers of communism, the real romance here is the intense friendship that existed between the frequently impoverished and exiled to Marx and his “Manifesto” and co-author, the “bourgeois revolutionary” Engels, who loyally supported his friend, often financially. And Peck incorporates a pair of buddy-movie beats in his otherwise talky, dense film: Marx and Engels, the exchange of bad-schoolboy looks, waiting for the decision on their introduction to the League of the righteous (who will join and, well, revolutionize); the pair always roaring drunk and passing in Marx’s Paris apartment; and also a borderline slapstick sequence in which they avoid capture by the pursuing authorities. These moments of choosing the crasser, more raw Guy Ritchie genre mash-up that could have been – Marx & Engels Investigate! perhaps, or Marx + Engels: Vampire Hunters – and even if, of course, one more subtle and the sensitivity of the rebel to a lack of respect, watching The Young Karl Marx, there can be a small corner of your soul that secretly wishes that the film had been just a little bit more iconoclastic.
You might find yourself mentally calculating if Peck would have had the time, let alone inclination, to finish on an image of the current president of the UNITED states, and what that might mean
But Peck, Haiti, film-maker, whose three-decade career has just been coated with an Oscar nomination for the arsonist, James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not The Negro, and that Lumumba was such a stirring account of the rise and brutal fall of the leader of the Congolese, it is more mutedly respectful. His film does not sink under the weight of the chimney hats and corsetry that will narrow down the many costume dramas -the middle of the 19th Century is evoked with a good worn-out vibe – but nor is it entirely immune to the pitfalls of the period drama. In faithfully telling the partisanship that has characterized the Marx relief (there is an almost Darwinian to feel so uncompromising elan defeated a political rival after the other), the film becomes a little lost in the reeds of specificity, and its relevance to contemporary events is damped.
This is a problem, because a clear ideological interpretation overthrow the powerful, the plutocratic few at the name of the working masses would be irresistible applications for the political landscape of today, in which, perhaps, the most effective tactic used by our crop of demagogues was to co-opt the rhetoric of the revolutionary left to their own, often diametrically opposed, agenda. But not only that, is that the forest is lost for the trees of historical details, simple hero bow makes the parallel, but moot. Marx’s enemies within the left, depicts a man as blowhards, green day, polemicists, has-beens or ineffective pie-eyed idealists (that would be the ‘libtards’ of today), whose defeat for our attractive, charismatic hero comes as a not good.
There is a delay in bid for relevance, when the movie only anachronism, we cut to the credits and Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, the rings on the documentary of revolutionary movements and politicians from the subsequent decades. You might find yourself leaning closer, as the Vietnam protests give way to Reagan and Thatcher and the special relationship, and mentally calculating if Peck would have had the time, let alone inclination, to finish on an image of the current president of the UNITED states, and what that might mean. That is not him, and instead closes on a generic image of burning dollar bills, and tells you everything you need to know about The Young Karl Marx: well done and very educational, even if it is, you can’t help but feel like an opportunity for provocation, the type of which his subject would surely have approved, has not been achieved.