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A small group of peasants warily collect wood in the forest. The poverty and desperation is clear in their faces. A voiceover alerts us that the law has turned this simple act of survival into an illegal act of wood theft. The peasants, sensing a disturbance, look around nervously. Riders ominously appear in the distance.
The voiceover, quoting Montesquieu, tells us that there are two types of corruption: one where the people do not follow the law and the other where the law corrupts the people. The riders charge at the peasants and brutally cut them down.
We might expect a film about Karl Marx to open with exploited factory workers toiling in nineteenth century industrial misery. That Raoul Peck’s new feature film, The Young Karl Marx, instead decides to lead with a more bucolic scene is a fitting biographical touch. One of Marx’s first forays into journalism (from which the voiceover is taken) was an investigation into wood theft in the Rhineland, an experience that put the philosophy graduate in the “embarrassing position” — he later recalled — “of having to discuss what is known as material interests.”
That attention to historical detail characterizes the film as a whole, and testifies to the clearly loving amount of research that went into making it. The result is an entertaining and surprisingly funny portrait of the young Marx. A friend, who had read Marx but knew little of his life and character, described watching the film as a similar experience to seeing your favorite band perform live for the first time.
The film — which opens today in theaters across Germany, but whose US and UK release dates remain up in the air — charts Marx’s life from 1843 to 1848, as a young man in his mid to late twenties. After the Prussian censors shut down his Cologne newspaper, Marx eagerly embraces the opportunity to move to Paris to start a new journalistic venture. There, with his new wife Jenny von Westphalen, he throws himself into the city’s socialist milieu.
He soon encounters Friedrich Engels, and in one of the film’s strongest sequences, we see how the two men overcome their initial hostility and set out onto the streets of Paris to celebrate their newfound comradeship. The film then follows their joint struggle against various other contemporary socialist leaders, culminating in their collaboration on the Communist Manifesto.
The Young Karl Marx is one of less than a handful of screen adaptations about Marx (as opposed to the vast and ever-increasing supply of documentaries and written biographies about the Old Man). This is surprising because, in comparison to some great historical thinkers, Marx actually lived a pretty interesting life. He participated in a revolution, had three of his newspapers shut down, and was forcibly exiled four times. His relationship with Jenny, while marred by the premature death of four of their seven children and Marx’s (possible) unfaithfulness, was also a genuine love story. Any screenwriter would seem to have plenty of material.
Yet there are, to my knowledge, just three feature-length film adaptations of Marx’s life.
The Soviet directorial duo Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg made the first attempt, in the early 1940s, only to have the production abruptly cancelled for failing to depict Marx and Engels with “sufficient respect.”
It was thus not until 1965 that the first Marx biopic appeared. The two-part God kak zhizn (A Year is Like a Lifetime) depicted Marx’s life in the revolutionary year from 1848 to 1849. The film assembled something of a dream team, with one of Russia’s most-loved actors, Andrei Mironov, in the role of Engels, the well-known Igor Kvasha as Marx, and music by Dmitri Shostakovich. However, despite the star line up, it failed to have a lasting impact and went down as one of Shostakovich’s least memorable scores.
The next effort was the 1968 East German black-and-white costume drama Mohr und die Raben von London (Mohr and the Ravens of London), based on the popular children’s book of the same name. A surprisingly sweet movie, it tells the heavily fictionalized story of Marx befriending two London child laborers, Becky and Joe, and coming to their aid against a cruel factory owner. Marx (referred to by his family nickname “Mohr,” given to him because of his dark skin) is here portrayed as a wise and kindly uncle figure, who, though impoverished, does not hesitate to help the children of London.
One recent critic described the film as having an “unexpected grandeur, solemnity and beauty.” The film and the book (which was part of the GDR’s school curriculum) seem to have also played an important role in shaping young East Germans’ perception of Marx.
Joe teaches Mohr (Marx) how to peel onions in Mohr und die Raben von London (Mohr and the Ravens of London, 1968).
The third and final adaptation was the 1980 mini-series Karl Marks: Molodye gody/Karl Marx: Die jungen Jahre (Karl Marx: The Early Years), coproduced by the Soviet Union and the GDR. In seven one-hour episodes, it depicts an old Marx looking back on his younger self in the years 1835 to 1848.
None of these adaptations had much if any impact on audiences in the advanced capitalist world, and English-subtitled versions are (as far as I can tell) nonexistent. Cinema in what used to be called the First World also seems to have completely avoided the subject.
The Young Karl Marx is clearly a step above these previous adaptations. Raoul Peck is an accomplished director with several outstanding left-wing films under his belt, including Lumumba (which follows the final months of the Congolese anticolonial hero) and, more recently, I Am Not Your Negro (a documentary about James Baldwin that received a nomination for best documentary at this year’s Oscars). Peck also has the rare linguistic background (he was born in Haiti, grew up in Congo, France, and America, and studied in Germany) to do the material justice, since the film switches rapidly between German, French, and English (mirroring Marx and Engels’s trilingual letters to each other).
Under his direction Marx (played by August Diehl) is brought to life and humanized in a way that earlier adaptations couldn’t have dared to do. Far from the upstanding intellectual and political activist of Soviet and GDR productions, Marx is shown smoking, drinking, throwing up, and having sex. Diehl (perhaps best known to non-German audiences for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) manages to simultaneously capture Marx’s immense intelligence, energy, and passion, as well as his frequent bursts of anger and arrogance.
Diehl is accompanied by admirable performances of Marx’s two core personal relationships, with Vicky Krieps as Jenny and Stefan Konarskeas Engels. Krieps convincingly and touchingly conveys the loving nature of their marriage and the role she played in his political activities, and Diehl and Konarske’s intense and thoroughly entertaining depictions of one of history’s great collaborations will almost inevitably invite comparisons with the bromance genre. Konarske brings out the contradictions of Engels’s bourgeois background (though some of the more playful, and indeed playboy, aspects of his character are missing). Audiences are also likely to enjoy the feisty portrayal of his Irish partner Mary Burns (Hannah Steele).
One of the more surprising elements of The Young Karl Marx is the extent to which it dives into the complicated world of early communist politics. Marx and Engels’s battles with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Wilhelm Weitling, and Karl Grün are all given extensive screen time.
On my first viewing of the film, the focus on these disputes seemed esoteric, and the characters’ portrayal a little cartoonish. But this impression softened the second time I watched the movie, as both audiences seemed to have followed the political disagreements without much confusion and appreciated the humorous interactions.
Cinematically, the film is beautifully shot, though fairly conventional in its storytelling. We might, for example, have seen Marx break the fourth wall to explain historical materialism (a device used to great effect in The Big Short). Or taken a trip to a raucous workers’ club meeting, recreating the intellectual and political energy of 1840s Paris.
The film’s ending also oddly concludes right when the 1848 Revolution breaks out, thus omitting Marx’s time as a leading radical newspaper editor and Engels’s days fighting at the barricades. Marx’s subsequent years in exile in London would also have been ripe for exploration, with the family enduring poverty, death, and marital betrayal. Perhaps Peck is hoping that a successful film run might make the sequels The Middle-Aged Marx and The Old Marx a possibility.
The Young Karl Marx is likely to entertain left-wing moviegoers across the globe. It was enthusiastically received by the audience at its premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival (which included most of the leadership of Die Linke, the German Left Party). Less politicized audiences are likely to be impressed by Marx’s humor, which might help dispel the image of a dour old man with a beard. The film will also, I imagine, play a useful educational role in the future as a lively accompaniment to courses on Marx.
In short, committed socialists and average moviegoers alike have reason to look forward to the film’s worldwide release. Peck clearly wanted to bring Marx’s story to a wider audience, and with The Young Karl Marx, he’s succeeded.
[Bruno Leipold is writing a PhD in political theory on Karl Marx and republicanism.]