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An intellectually rigorous but stylistically staid peep at the 20-something author of Capital and The Communist Manifesto, Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx is at once historically impeccable and a filmic disappointment. Having just made a stunningly inventive documentary on James Baldwin, the Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro, Peck is a director at the height of his creative powers. But here, six years of prep and a legendary subject have led to a surprisingly straight piece of biography shot in a classic style. Coming from the director of the unforgettable Lumumba (2000), which chronicled the rise and assassination of the Congo’s democratically elected leader, it’s a bit of a let-down.
Perhaps biography is not what the current film is driving at (Marx’s co-author, Friedrich Engels, gets almost as much screen time as he does, for starters.) Peck seems more focused on re-creating a pregnant moment in history between the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the 1848 democratic revolutions in Europe that overthrew absolute monarchies and imperial powers. Portraying ideas onscreen is always a daunting prospect in a feature film and yet, on this front, The Young Karl Marx stands out as intelligent, stirring, literate and tri-lingual — the characters speak English, French and German fluently.
Also to be noted, the film is not without its rousing moments, and rings a timely bell in these years of worldwide economic recession, when Marx’s materialist thought is being widely reassessed. His call to end child labor, wage slavery, inhuman working conditions and abject poverty should strike a resonant chord of agreement in any well-disposed audience.
Scenes unfold like a history lesson sans surprises until the end credits, when Bob Dylan’s plaintive voice rises over stunning black-and-white period photos as he sings “Like a Rolling Stone,” and one wonders where he was for the previous two hours.
The riveting opening scene conveys the extreme poverty of the have-nots and the unbridled arrogance of the haves. While ragged peasants are gathering fallen branches from the floor of a forest, they are brutally assaulted by armed horsemen: even picking up dead wood is considered an act of theft.
The repulsive violence of this typical scene sets the stage for the young Marx (August Diehl) who is in Prussia publishing indignant articles in the progressive newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. When it gets shut down and the staff is arrested, he resolves to be even more outspoken in the future. Though embarrassingly poor, he takes the opportunity to move to Paris with his aristocratic wife Jenny von Westphalen (Vicky Krieps) and their infant daughter, then on to Brussels and London.
A turning point comes when he makes the acquaintance of a 23-year-old blond dandy named Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), the son of a factory owner in Manchester. Their initial meeting, in which Karl gratuitously insults Friedrich, is bristly, but they are united in their thinking about the appalling social conditions and the need to militate beyond vague abstractions about universal brotherhood. A feverish intellectual collaboration begins. Their paths cross that of famous figures of the time, like the influential reformist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (jovially played by Olivier Gourmet) and Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (a dashing Ivan Franek), who seem to instantly recognize in the two young men the wave of the future.
The action culminates in London at the 1847 congress of the League of the Just. In the space of a few short votes, Engels and Marx succeed in transforming the utopian socialist/Christian group into the Communist League with the sheer force of their ideas.
Backstage, as it were, glimpses are afforded into their personal lives. Friedrich is given time to fight with his father and fall in love with the working class Irish firebrand Mary Burns (Hannah Steele). Though not center stage, Jenny and Mary are significant for adding some women to the revolution, which otherwise seems to be a sea of opinionated men. Both Krieps and Steele are well cast and perfectly able to hold their own. Peck and his co-writer Pascal Bonitzer, who worked with him on Lumumba, are probably wise to opt out of detailing the tragic death of several of Marx’s children and his extramarital affairs.
German actor Diehl (Inglourious Basterds) is unrecognizable behind a thick black beard, but his combination of mocking gravitas, forceful intelligence and willingness to fight anyone over ideas makes him a Marx to be reckoned with. Beside him, Konarske’s Engels seems positively polite, and it’s always a pleasant surprise to hear him speaking out to defend radical ideas far removed from his class and upbringing.
Production companies: AGAT Films, Velvet Film in association with Rohfilm, Artemis Productions
Cast: August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Krieps, Olivier Gourmet, Michael Brandner, Alexander Scheer, Hannah Steele, Ivan Franek, Niels Bruno Schmidt
Director: Raoul Peck
Screenwriters: Pascal Bonitzer, Raoul Peck
Producers: Nicolas Blanc, Remi Grellety, Robert Guediguian, Raoul Peck
Director of photography: Kolja Brandt
Production designer: Benoit Barouh
Costume designers: Paule Mangenot
Editor: Frederique Broos
Music: Alexei Aigui
Casting director: Sylvie Brochere
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Special gala)
Sales: Films Distribution
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