Berlin Film Review: ‘The Young Karl Marx’

'The Young Karl Marx' Review

Raoul Peck's biopic about the philosopher-muse of Communism is a drama so old school that it tames the radicalism of its subject.

As a director, Raoul Peck is a passionate and protean talent. He has been making films for close to 30 years, and he’s right in the middle of his most seismic moment with “I Am Not Your Negro,” his searching meditation on James Baldwin, which has struck a deeper, wider chord than anyone might have anticipated. In 2000, Peck made a galvanizing drama about Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo, that was the cinema’s most perceptive (and agonizing) study of colonialism: what it is, how it works, why its legacy is so hard to shake off.

Now, at the Berlin Film Festival, Peck takes a different leap altogether with “The Young Karl Marx,” a classically conceived and executed biopic that traces how Marx, as a struggling family-man writer in the 1840s, came to create “The Communist Manifesto.” It’s an impeccably crafted and honorable movie — but, I have to say, not a very enthralling one. If you didn’t know Raoul Peck’s name was on it, “The Young Karl Marx” would look like a so-so Merchant Ivory film from 1993. It’s dutiful, but it’s also superficial and polite, and it commits the genteel sin of the old biopics: It turns its hero into a plaster saint.

Is Karl Marx morally responsible for everything in the 20th century that happened in his name? Of course not. Yet if you look at that legacy — mass incarceration and death (in China, the Soviet Union, Cambodia) on a scale comparable, in some cases, to genocide — then you can at least ask the question: Was the madness of 20th-century Communism encoded in the naïveté of Marx’s writings? In “The Young Karl Marx,” he’s played, by the German actor August Diehl, as an eager, bushy-haired (and bushy-tailed) liberal philosopher, fighting for the proletariat even though he’s never been a working man himself.

An opening title provides the context for Marx’s struggle: The Industrial Revolution has arrived, and the old order that ruled Europe — the monarchy, the imperial aristocracy — is getting ready to topple. (It would have happened anyway; Marx gave it a nudge.) In the early scenes, when we meet Karl, all glorified schoolboy fire, and also Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), the very bourgeois factory owner’s son — he wears a top hat and high collar — who becomes his comrade and writing partner, the movie makes the point that the whole scheme of analysis we think of as “Marxist” was already in place. The perception of the class system, the rage against the capitalist oppressors, the dream of a world in which workers would unite as brothers: Karl Marx didn’t invent any of that.

So what did he do? In “The Young Karl Marx,” he gets into friendly debates with Pierre Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet), the firebrand French anarchist who preaches against the world of assembly-line labor (what he calls “the new machines from hell”), and he speaks, rather defensively, about how he doesn’t want to be “a scribbler urging world revolution.” (Good luck.) Then he meets Engels: The two take the piss out of each other for about five minutes, but after that it’s all high-minded bromance. “You’re the greatest materialist thinker of our times,” says Friedrich. “A genius.” That’s quite a claim, but the film never begins to explain what it means. As presented, Karl’s big insight appears to be that the dissolution of the class system can’t reject materialism — it has to be about the redistribution of it. Yet the movie, oddly, never makes us feel the radicalism of this idea; Karl just presents it as common sense.

August Diehl is a skillful actor, known for his work in films like “Inglourious Basterds,” but he and Konarske are both a little too fetching and caught in their own placid glamour to play these upstart philosophers with the right tone of prickly fanaticism. In “The Young Karl Marx,” they’re like a couple of indie rock stars, grooving on each other’s riffs. Engels, to write his book about the struggle of the worker, has done his research, mostly by romancing the cutest worker (Hannah Steele) in his father’s textile mill. As the two men skip around the continent, going from Germany to Paris to London, nattering on in drawing rooms about the proletariat as if they were collaborating on the world’s most ardent term paper, the one dramatic constant is Marx’s struggle to take care of his family: his radiant and endlessly supportive wife, Jenny (Vicky Krieps), and young daughter. He does a good job of it, and Diehl, in fact, makes Karl so centered and loving that he’s never thrown off balance. I kept wishing for him to have a moodier side — wondering what, say, an actor like Oscar Isaac might have brought to the role. The Karl we see in “The Young Karl Marx” is never more (or less) than the sum of his compassion.

Peck stages the movie with the kind of stodgy middlebrow competence that, after a while, can wear you down; he doesn’t make glaring mistakes, but he never upsets the apple cart. And maybe that’s because he’s lost, in his way, in a view of Marx that’s too automatically romantic. The film is at its best when Karl gets concrete about what his philosophy means — like his crusade against child labor. Yet it buys too easily into Marx’s utopian (and deeply bourgeois) view that the class system is a conceit imposed by the oppressor, and that the attempt to try and equalize everything is simply the higher wisdom.

Near the end, there’s a classic corny biopic moment when Marx and Engels are writing “The Communist Manifesto,” sculpting the sentence that reads “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism…” The weight of the words never feels spontaneous; it comes with a Great Books seal of approval. But then, startlingly, the closing credits play over clips of news footage from the 20th century, with Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” blasting on the soundtrack. That’s certainly the kind of audacity this safe and slightly dull movie could have used more of. Yet if Peck is saying that Marxism is having a moment of comeback, the 20th century (unlike the 19th) isn’t a great advertisement for it. I watched those clips thinking: What would the young Karl Marx have made of what was done in his name?

Berlin Film Review: 'The Young Karl Marx'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival, Feb. 12, 2017. Running time: 112 MIN. (Original title: “Le jeune Karl Marx”)

Production

An AGAT Films and Cie, Velvet Film, Rohfilm GmbH, Artémis Productions prod. Producers: Nicolas Blanc, Rémi Greilety, Robert Guédiguian, Raoul Peck.

Crew

Director: Raoul Peck. Screenplay: Peck, Pascal Bonitzer. Camera (color, widescreen): Kolja Brandt. Editor: Frédérique Broos.  

With

August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Krieps, Olivier Gourmet, Michael Brandner, Alexander Scheer, Hannah Steele, Niels Bruno Schmidt. (French, German, English dialogue)

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  1. Marx lives! And here’s the proof: The phrase “child labor” in this review is used just like Marx would of wanted it, like its slavery. Is it slavery if a child voluntarily mows lawns or delivers newspapers or washes cars or works for a business to make money so he can buy a bike? No, its not, but Marx’s brainwashing lives on whenever ignorant writers continue to propagate it.

  2. Gmus says:

    Since you were so brilliant in noticing that Marx was “fighting for the proletariat even though he’s never been a working man himself” (would you define that statement naive?), I guess you shouldn’t have overlooked the fact that you are judging a movie without being a director or an actor as well as expressing naive opinions about communism and history without being a politician or historian, Mr. Gleiberman.

  3. Did you also wonder, reading the New Testament, how naive Jesus was, and how his teachings led to outright genocide many times over the centuries? Or did it occur to you that you might not understand theology, and that the authoritarian tyrants who used the Bible to justify their slaughters were cynical, stupid, and likely illiterate manipulators, and would have used the Farmer’s Almanac to justify their excesses if they thought they could get away with it? This review is one of the more ‘naive’ pieces of writing I’ve read in a while. You expect ignorance of socialism and dialectical materialism in America, I suppose, seeing as how even reading Marx has been suppressed for decades in that backward nation. But you kind of expect that someone writing for a prestigious publication would have some sort of background that might qualify them to speak on the issue they are covering. McCarthyism and its neoliberal scions have done a number on American education. And no, the comparison to Jesus is not unwarranted; besides the New Testament, I can’t think of another series of books that has had a greater impact on Western history (or Eastern, really) than Marx’ writings.

  4. Redjake says:

    Little i can add to the comments below, except to say that i agree with all of them. I’m guessing that the reviewer never studied sociology, philosophy, economics, European history or undertaken cultural studies on, say literary criticism, or political theory etc, etc, or he would know that Marx is an absolute giant in all of those fields. Far from being “naive” he was a brilliant man who was able to contribute to all of these fields of study. He certainly deserves to be celebrated in film and the review of the film deserves to be written by someone who has some concept of his huge contribution to modern thought.

  5. kk16085 says:

    Would love to see it. Even if there is distortion of Marxism in this film, it will act as fire in the existing social injustice, worldwide!

  6. Yes, this sounds like a review of Marx by a rightwing American. Who presumably would also accuse Jesus of the evils of the Inquisition and murderous religious wars between Christians.

  7. Kathryn H Johnson says:

    If you don’t know the difference between Materialist philosophy, and “materialism”, you do not qualify as a critic of Marxism. As for your trashing of Peck’s film, I would expect no less from someone who has obviously come to this subject with a fully-formed prejudice against it.

  8. hellohellomike says:

    Hello Owen,

    I can’t help but notice that you didn’t write a film review, and instead decided to review Karl Marx.

    Is it a failing of the film that Marx didn’t invent the “perception of the class system, the rage against the capitalist oppressors, the dream of a world in which workers would unite”? Is it a failing of cinematography that you found the ideas were “common sense”, not “revolutionary” to you?

    Later, you criticize the film’s — no, sorry, I forgot we are reviewing Karl Marx here — Marx’s “deeply bourgeois) view that the class system is a conceit imposed by the oppressor”. That sounds like you’re making a claim that the class system is self-evidently (it must be self-evident, since you didn’t make the argument) not imposed by an oppressor.

    Can you explain what your view of the class system is and what your definition of “bourgeois” is so we can see how it applies to Karl Marx himself and Marxist ideas in general? As you know, the definitions of bourgeois, proletariat, etc., are central to Marx’s philosophy and so by proposing new definitions of them you will certainly be moving the fields of political economy and philosophy far forward.

    Thanks very much, looking forward to your expansion of these ideas.

  9. LOL says:

    Communism is a gift. America needs it more than ever.

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