The Corner

Marx Before Marxism

Stefan Konarske (left) as Friedrich Engels and August Diehl as Karl Marx in The Young Karl Marx

I don’t have much to add to what NR’s film critics have already said about The Young Karl Marx, but I’ll add it anyway. I saw the film the other night at a theater on New York City’s Lower East Side — historically a hotbed of Communist agitation — and the audience had the jubilant vibe of a bunch of Parrotheads at a Jimmy Buffett concert, with an age profile you’d see in most movie theaters for a 1:00 weekday matinee. On the sidewalk outside, a man who looked old to have known Sacco and Vanzetti personally was loudly hawking a Leninist newspaper, and he may even have sold a few, though only out of nostalgia. The Lower East Side hasn’t been a slum for ages, and no one seemed to find it incongruous to be in a theater full of Karl Marx groupies with $15 drinks at the bar upstairs and million-dollar apartments down the block.

The film is well done, in the sense that you can easily get caught up in the characters’ lives and be concerned about what happens to them. It’s less didactic than one would expect, and it gives a sense of all the internecine struggles and rivalries that existed within the workers’-rights movement of the 1830s and 1840s — one in which Marx and Friedrich Engels were not yet superstars, but just the leaders of one faction. And there are plenty of scenes where Marx shows himself to be (surprise!) an arrogant jerk.

To be sure, the focus on Karl the penniless journalist struggling to feed his family makes it easy to overlook the vast evil he caused, but that’s in the nature of film. A while back I was watching an episode of The Americans, a television series about Soviet spies in the U.S. in the 1980s, and when it looked like the lead characters were going to be captured after they stole some deadly biological-warfare agents that could have killed billions of people, all I could think was, “No, no, don’t peek around that corner—the cops are there!” If a movie doesn’t manipulate you, it isn’t doing its job.

After the screening, the director, Raoul Peck, explained that he had built the movie around the characters’ actual correspondence and documented travels, and we could readily believe it. While the result of this scrupulousness can be a bit too quotidian (after a while all the public meetings blur together), it does a good job of depicting a time when it seemed that every problem could be traced to a lack of proper theoretical underpinnings, and all you had to do was educate the masses and paradise would result. It’s not surprising that in the dawn of the industrial revolution, everyone was so naïve; what’s surprising is that nearly two centuries later, some people still take all those guys seriously.

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