If you’re more used to movies about robots hitting each other or dinosaur theme parks, “The Young Karl Marx” is a very particular kind of Euro indie that’s probably not for you, all grey and brown-clad intellectuals arguing about politics the same way Spielberg’s “Lincoln” felt more like a history lesson you knew you should absorb rather than a movie to really enjoy.
It does a good job of humanising characters we remember more as prime movers in moments of change than people, but the bigger picture is less about the characters’ personal struggles than it is the world wrought in the wake of their efforts. If you find it stuffy, dull or unimportant, the end credits makes a very good case for why you should be interested.
Showing photos from a never-ending stream of political cause and effect from the time of Bolshevik Revolution through to the Cold War, Vietnam and Reaganomics, “The Young Karl Marx” convinces you that the quiet chats between passionate and scruffy scholars in the beer halls and tenements of 19th century Europe in fact had far-reaching ramifications for the whole world.
But until then, discerning and patient viewers will be rewarded with the birth of modern socialism that seems as true to life as any film could make it. Marx (August Diehl, the SS officer who throws a spanner in the works and causes the French pub scene in Inglourious Basterds to end in such spectacular violence) is a poor academic in Paris, struggling to make a living as a political pamphleteer and reporter and with a devoted wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) and baby to take care of.
When we meet Marx he’s raging against the self censorship of the bourgeoise at the newspaper where he works even while the police are breaking down the door to trash the place – the government of the day trying to drum any hint of socialism out of France in accordance with the political mood of the day.
At the same time, Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarkse), the son of a wealthy industrialist, spends his nights wandering the streets of Paris witnessing the horrors of poverty and deprivation the newly powerful capitalist class imposes on them. When Mary (Hannah Steele), a young Irish firebrand at his father’s factory, tells her employer to shove it and storms out in protest at the conditions her and her colleagues work in, Friedrich follows her to a dank pub frequented by disaffected and angry Irish workers. Instead of befriending the working class he hopes to champion and congratulating Mary on her stand, he reeks so much of money and privilege she has to save him from getting beaten and robbed.
Marx and Engels meet through a shared patron, and after barely a minute of professional jealousy over past writing they know from each other, the pair take off together, fast friends and determined to create a document that will enable justice for the working class the expanding powers of capitalism threaten to crush.
That document, as history tells us, is The Communist Manifesto, and the movie charts Marx and Engels’ struggle to mobilise and reorganise the fledgling union movement to give their piece de resistance some human capital.
In doing so, “The Young Karl Marx has two great strengths”. In almost any other version of this film (including any that would come from Hollywood where inclusion, diversity and #MeToo is in full swing) the two male leads would be depicted as hardscrabble, hardworking lovable rogues conquering the world while their devoted women keep home and hearth, smiling lovingly at their achievements.
But here, Mary and Jenny are full partners in the venture. Mary (after their rocky start, Engels and Mary form a bond that eventually develops into a relationship of their own) has lived and suffered on the front line of the class war and Jenny understands and believes in the same values as her husband, and if you believe it should have been called ‘The Young Marx and Engels’ rather than just focus on Marx’s more famous name, maybe it should have been ‘The Young Karl, Friedrich, Mary and Jenny’ because of the vibrant and intelligent contribution the women make.
The second strength is a sense of straightforward nuance about political history. In a world where the word ‘socialism’ (let alone ‘communism’) is still enough to get Western powers frothing at the mouth in rage in any official discourse today, it takes a more measured reading of history to know what The Communist Manifesto was really about.
Like the Nazi swastika was co-opted from another movement with other symbolism (Buddhism), the Bolshevik Revolution cherry picked Marx and Engels’ work to suit its own ambitions. Modern political communism from early 20th century Russia to modern China is about political control rather than equitable resources – stuff that couldn’t be further from what Marx and Engels were about.
Maybe that’s what the end credits sequence is really saying. No matter how much we wish – like Marx and Engels did – we were fair, egalitarian and caring, the hunger for power is what truly drives us and we’ll adopt the tenets of any political or scholarly system that suit our needs to support it.
How director Raoul Peck and his co-screenwriters Pascal Bonitzer and Pierre Hodgson manage to convey all that meaning from a movie with washed out colour where people argue about unions and votes in the candle-lit cafes and slums of Europe is quite a feat. Approach it from the correct angle and you’ll feel a thrilling sense of history being made.