Film Review from the August 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Young Karl Marx. Director: Raoul Peck.
This is a German film by a Haitian director. The timing of the film – 200 years after the birth of Marx – will be intended to piggyback the publicity around this anniversary. It will also benefit from the recent general upsurge in interest in Marx and socialism after almost 30 years in the wilderness following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The film, mainly spoken in German with English sub-titles, focuses upon Marx (August Diehl) and Engels (Stefan Konarske) during the years of the formation of their friendship from 1843 through to their collaboration in the drafting of the Communist Manifesto in 1847; thus dealing with a short but vital period in their lives and stopping short of depicting the revolutions in Europe in 1848. Marx’s wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) and Engels’ wife Mary Burns (Hannah Steele) have significant supplementary roles, predominantly supporting their men.
The film opens in Germany when Marx is arrested for his criticism of new laws which take away the traditional right of peasants to gather firewood on a landowner’s property. He is exiled to Paris where he meets Engels and then to Brussels and finally London. The film captures their personal and political development as they wrestle to articulate their ideology.
Whilst Marx battles with the authorities and contends with poverty Engels clashes over his father’s treatment of the workers at his mill; the conditions of which are vividly captured in the cinematography. The film illustrates how the two young men develop their economic theory of the social relations of production through personal contemplation and in debates with such figures as Proudhon, Bakunin, and the Young Hegelians. In the process Marx moves away from philosophy - which he increasingly regards as a sterile discipline pre-occupied with interpreting the world – towards his theory of political economy, in order to act upon the world to change it.
The film has the feel of a biopic period piece which would be more at home as a BBC drama than an epic of the big screen. The volume of historical events seems to be turned down, effectively muffling these momentous times. Raoul Peck said that he made the film for young people. Perhaps this is why it has the feel of a soap opera. It was interesting to see these historical figures brought to life on the big screen and humanised through a window onto their private lives, rather than either lionised or demonised for their political beliefs; but overall the film was enjoyable, rather than spectacularly informative or stimulating.
It ends with a montage of video clips from the twentieth century depicting momentous events of social upheaval, to the musical accompaniment of Bob Dylan’s: ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’ Perhaps this is a further nod to the Millennials, although a more twenty-first century resonance for this audience might have been provided by Marx’s quote from the nineteenth century: ‘There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery.’
Given that it is a rare event for the film industry to grasp such a difficult and controversial topic it feels like a missed opportunity. Perhaps there will be a sequel; in celluloid and in real life.