The Young Karl Marx (2017)
Directed by Raoul Peck. Starring August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Krieps, Olivier Gourmet, and Hannah Steele.
Raoul Peck, director of the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro about James Baldwin, has made another film about a monumental political writer who altered the way people thought about their time and society, this new one in the form of a bio-pic, set a century earlier, and all across Europe. The Young Karl Marx is a richly crafted period piece about the revolutionary German economic and political thinker Karl Marx, which Peck wisely mounted as an intimate historical drama and character study about the man and his friends, family, and detractors and their radical ideas and convictions that have been debated ever since they were written.
The film begins in the 1840s with, as the film promises, the young Karl Marx (August Diehl), befriending a fellow writer, Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), a man who was stuck between two opposing worlds that helped shape his worldview and politics. His father was a fierce factory owner and businessman who is shown early in the film worrying about what his young factory workers’ losing fingers will do to his bottom line. While Engels comes from a wealthy background, he writes about the plights and struggles of those very workers, especially the downtrodden foreigners like his Irish wife Mary Burns (Hannah Steele). He wants to understand the working and lower class citizens and how they live, or how they barely do. Although he dresses as dapper as a man of the time can and comes from upon high, he goes down the alleyways and into the backrooms of Germany to see what makes his father’s factory and society function. From the beginning of the film Marx is portrayed as a man of principle and strong political ideals, which puts him at odds with the bourgeois society surrounding him and makes him and Engels allies right away. Marx’s mind is over flowing with ideas, which also made it hard for him to finish a paper or book, putting emotional and financial stress on his family. His wife, Jenny, played by Vicky Krieps, who was so transcendent as Daniel Day-Lewis’s muse in Phantom Thread, is a loving and supportive wife but a strong woman who does not linger in the shadows of history.
The women and the relationship between the male leads are what make the film as compelling and human as it is. Peck makes the costumes and sets feel lived-in and real, not stuffy PBS recreations of history. The film certainly deals with the political turmoil of the time, but the human interactions are what sell the characters and situations. Because the famous people are indeed young, part of the charm of the film is seeing stuffy black-and-white historical figures dusted off and trotted across bustling mid-19th century Europe. Like most people throughout history and up to the modern day, they were thinner in their twenties. Karl does not have the massive grey bush of hair sprouting from his face and head. When Karl and Jenny make love, it is tactile and sensual and in the moment, but there is a childish desire to point out that this is Karl Marx boning. He runs away from the police (in a humorous chase that is oddly reminiscent of Raising Arizona). He even vomits! These characters are human beings, not wax figures barely animated. The film’s production design and costumes are exquisite, but the real test of the craft is that while watching the film it does not feel like a posh recreation. The sweat on the brow and the dirt on the roads are palpable. The actors add a great deal to that illusion. Like with the best Shakespeare adaptations or any literature from years ago, the actors have to make the setting and dialogue immediate and real. The funny beards and tall hats and antiquated buildings have to drift away enough for the drama to spark. Those period elements are vital, but they have to aid the performances, not entomb the actors in the past.
Besides making the well-known figures human, Peck makes the film work as entertainment by striking the right balance of making the politics and theories understandable for a receptive audience but not dumbing them down or lecturing. A dilemma in making films with complex historical facts or political content is to summarize and dramatize the information in a way that does not leave the audience confused while also not having the characters deliver pat and condescending dialogue that they would never say in reality. Because the film is focused on a few years early in their lives, the relationships and ideas are in their early stages. This is Muppet Babies for the fathers of Communism. Many scenes consist of men standing in a room debating the tenets of the movement, but it remains gripping because of the personal details and relationships built throughout the film. Peck also does something that absorbing art based on true events does: he takes issues or events that the viewer may have little or no interest in or knowledge of and makes it riveting. What they are talking about may be uninteresting to some, but their passion and dedication are so compelling that it engages the casual viewer. It does not matter if one cares about the subject; one cares because of how much the characters care.
A few times it feels like a “Big Important Moment” is happening in history rather than the real life delicately rendered throughout the film. Every time they discuss what the title of their new work should be, one almost mouths, “The Communist Manifesto” in anticipation. The film also opens with an attack on some poor people “stealing” wood in a forest, hitting the audience over the head, stating too emphatically that this is not just an intellectual debate…this is people’s lives. Peck should be applauded for maintaining a reasonable approach through most of the film. One does not have to agree with Karl Marx or his beliefs to find the film worthy, just like with Steven Soderbergh’s Che Guevara bio-pic Che. It is a political film that always remains human and intelligent without being ponderous or dull.