Having received an Oscar nomination for his documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck created considerable anticipation for his equally political follow-up, The Young Karl Marx. Alas, this is not the first time Marxism turned out to be a crashing dud.
Films about writers face a big obstacle from the start: No one wants to watch a movie about a nerd scratching away at his desk. But Marx was a bit more than just a writer. Unlike the usual fight-the-power types, he actually did fight the power — and was forced out of three countries for it. Today’s radicals never even make good on their promises to move to Toronto.
Beginning in Cologne in 1843, Peck finds a grouchy 25-year-old Marx (the appropriately dour August Diehl) working for a febrile newspaper that is troubled by Prussian authorities, but not enough for Marx’s taste. Even among agitators, he’s an agitator. “Enough fighting with pins,” he declares. “I want a sledgehammer.” Karl does a lot of declaring in this movie.
As, no doubt, he did in life. And this is part of the problem with Young Karl Marx. He may have dreamed up a party, but he wasn’t exactly the life of it. Quoting the kinds of things Marx actually said is going to put the audience in a state of enjoyment approximating winter in Leningrad. Some movies feel like homework; others are more like punishment. When Marx goes to Paris and meets his soulmate Friedrich Engels (Stefan Kenarske), who has been riling up the workers in Manchester, England, at one of his father’s 13 mills, the two discover they can practically finish each other’s sentences, like Jake and Elwood — just call them the Reds Brothers.
Quoting the kinds of things Marx actually said is going to put the audience in a state of enjoyment approximating winter in Leningrad.
Engels — limousine liberal before limousines — has been betraying his class amid much declaration of his own. “I hate and despise gentlemen,” he says. “They are the swine who grow fat on the sweat of laborers.” Sweat is fattening? Never mind. Catching the eye of Mary (Hannah Steele), a Norma Rae–like Irish worker who has been sacked from his father’s mill for demanding better safety conditions (or, really, any safety conditions), he consorts with the lower orders while gathering material for his 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England.
Marx’s marriage, meanwhile, is its own opposites-attract story: His bride is the aristocrat Jenny von Westphalen-Marx (Vicky Krieps, who was enchanting as a dress designer’s muse in the recent film Phantom Thread but isn’t especially remarkable this time).
The parallels between the two men, such as the way each sought his antonym in love, might have been one possible dramatic hook for the story, one way to get us away from the speeches and the screeds and the urgent conferences and toward some insight into who Marx and Engels really were. A more supple and less direct screenplay (Peck co-wrote the movie with Pascal Bonitzer) might have kept things moving with the occasional spark of wit and found life details that intersected with the political points. Instead, there’s exactly one joke in the movie, and it turns out to not really be a joke after all: Listening to Karl and Friedrich’s endless Hegelian dialectic, Jenny suggests an Onion-style title for what they’re working on: Critique de la Critique Critique (Critique of Critical Criticism). Marx and Engels chuckle a bit but then go ahead and actually use that title, although the book is better known as The Holy Family.
If he wasn’t interested in going beyond a sort of PBS level of depth into the men’s personalities, Peck might have gone the other way and delved into the details about how, exactly, Communism was supposed to be implemented, and where. (Hint: not in agrarian Russia.) But few will walk out of this movie with any sense of what Communism actually was, except that it was supposedly going to help poor people, who mainly just fill out the background here.
Few will walk out of this movie with any sense of what Communism actually was except it was supposedly going to help poor people, who mainly just fill out the background here.
Peck contents himself with a neither-here-nor there strategy of Marx and Engels coming up with windy phrases of the sort that have made generations of bourgeois college students nod off after three paragraphs of The Marx-Engels Reader. It’s all leading up to a self-congratulatory closing credits sequence that essentially says, “This is why our movie matters: Check out these clips from Communism’s subsequent history, backed for no particular reason by Bob Dylan’s apolitical ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ ” A more apropos pick would have been John Lennon’s “Revolution”: “You say you’ve got a real solution . . . we’d all love to see the plan.”