The Young Karl Marx Review
Following on from the success of I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck turns his attention to another philosopher from a century earlier who proved to be one of the most influential political theorists of the modern age.
As the introduction to the Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto states “A spectre is haunting Europe...” and given the current divisive social landscape in the West there is a timeliness to the telling of this story. Peck’s biopic looks back at the events between 1843 and 1848 that led to the publication of the first volume of Capital: Critique of Political Economy. The work was the result of an unlikely collaboration between Marx (August Diehl) and Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), the son of a rich factory owner who cannot hide his contempt for the exploitation of the working class.
Marx’s wife, Jenny (Vicky Krieps) was also born to an aristocratic family, and as shown by Peck, her unwavering support provided the backbone that enabled her husband to explore his revolutionary ideas. We follow Marx as he networks his way up the socialist ladder, moving with his family from Brussels, to Paris and London, befriending Engels along the way. There is a matter-of-factness to many of the scenes that struggle to translate the passion driving the duo towards creating the Communist Manifesto - the anger and subversive nature of Marx’s ideas sounding like nothing more than lines lifted straight out of an historical textbook.
The rigidness of the script feeds its way into the performances which are serviceable but equally as uninvolving. There is very little weight given to their roles which seem content to conservatively tip-toe through the subject for fear of intellectually challenging (or heaven forbid, even offending) its audience. Kolja Brandt’s distilled cinematography doesn’t feature a hair or costume button out of place, keeping a sustained distance from the mind of a radical thinker in a film that never dares venture outside of the safe confines of the usual biopic rules.
The Young Karl Marx has been praised in some quarters for its historical accuracy and perhaps that is its problem. Aside from a pointless chase sequence and a needless sex scene between Karl and Jenny, it is perhaps too restricted by fact to find its own sense of cinematic truth. With so much of Marx’s work later distorted by the rise of Russian communism under Lenin and Stalin, Peck nobly sets his stall out to debunk the misconceptions that have attached themselves to Marx but the life is sucked out of the drama in the process.
Raoul Peck’s own political activism has fed every aspect of his filmmaking career to date and he clearly has a close affiliation to Marx’s ideas and thinking. He no doubt hopes the film will act as a rallying call to those of a more left-leaning nature as the battle against the right intensifies, but it’s hard to see anyone beyond ardent Marxists and curious socialists finding an emotional and intellectual connection with his film.