The Young Karl Marx (Raoul Peck, 2017)

The Young Karl Marx

Director: Raoul Peck

Year: 2017

Country: Belgium/France/Germany.

Friedrich is the son of a wealthy industrialist who owns a textile factory in Manchester, but rebels against his father’s values by siding with the workers and writing a revelatory treatise lamenting their living conditions. One afternoon, in the dusky office of a journal editor, he meets Karl, a headstrong writer of controversial essays whose reputation precedes him. They eye each other in a prickly stand-off: Friedrich finds Karl rude and arrogant, Karl thinks Friedrich to be a bourgeois bohemian whose money allows him to pretend loving the poor. But this is merely the mating ritual before the ice melts and the guards are lowered to reveal the glowing pleasure of two people finding soulmates in each other.

With this month marking 200 years since Karl Marx’s birth, and with economic inequalities remaining an all-too-obvious reality in our social systems, Raoul Peck’s biopic about young Marx meeting young Engels and doing things that will forever change the world could not be a more timely reminder of the usefulness of his methodology. As a film, its rote costume-drama storytelling and dim-lit widescreen cinematography do not quite burn with the same revolutionary fervor as the man’s writings, but such is the compromise it makes in the hope of reaching (both on screens and in the minds of the viewers) a larger potential audience than, say, Godard’s rhetoric-spewing La Chinoise.

What it does do well is show the wider context in which Marx and Engels were formed and inspired to write the Communist Manifesto. A prologue in a forest depicting peasants violently persecuted by landowners for gathering deadwood on their property makes concrete the class injustices the two men were writing about. This is a Europe in political turmoil, in which the intellectual class is busy splitting itself into factions. There’s the Young Hegelians, the League of the Just who spout vague platitudes such as “All men are brothers”, the advocates of German radical Wilhelm Weitling, and the disciples of proto-anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Marx and Engels become increasingly frustrated at the standstill this merry-go-round of debates and disputes leaves them in and come to believe that philosophers should no longer merely try to interpret the world, but to transform it.

The Young Karl Marx, like Peck’s earlier biopic about iconic Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, also gets an honourable grade for its faithfulness in bringing these historical characters to life. The script he co-wrote with the legendary Pascal Bonitzer (Jacques Rivette’s regular writer) sticks closely to actual letters and memoirs written by those concerned. The presence of Jenny, Karl’s wife and much-admired by Engels, deepens the friendship into a triangular relationship. That all three actors are fluent in German, French and English, and fluidly move from one language to another mid-conversation (as these people really did in their correspondence), gives the film an internationalist dimension, further reflected in its transnational setting across four countries and its multinational financing. Perfectly fitting of course for a biopic on the man among whose inestimable legacy was the founding of an international border-crossing movement of communist workers, and today still it is sadly hard to disagree when Peck claims there’s nowhere in the world where the sharpness of his analysis has lost any clout.

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