During its end credits, The Young Karl Marx finally springs to life with footage of historic revolutions accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” on the soundtrack. This sequence underlines what’s missing from the film at large: a sense that director Raoul Peck has made the story of Karl Marx (August Diehl) his own. We see images of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s and of figures such as John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro, among others, and the furious and evocative unity of picture and song reminds the audience that communism sprang from concerns that intensely dog modern society. This brief montage suggests a kind of thematic sequel to Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary that painted a visceral, figurative, and historically expansive portrait of novelist and critic James Baldwin.
Overall, however, The Young Karl Marx is mercilessly dry and noble. Peck has refreshingly little patience for the platitudes that govern most biopics, which often suggest that great people fashion revolutionary ideas in a bubble by divine intervention. Following Marx as he and his family hopscotch around Europe in the 1840s, Peck illustrates that successful writing involves networking as much if not more than actual writing. In Paris, Marx co-edits the radical left newspaper Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher (or German-French Annals), which was pivotally set up by Arnold Ruge (Hans-Uwe Bauer), who serves Marx expensive wine while being consistently late with paying the firebrand for his articles. Freelancers will recognize the truth of such evasion.
Through Ruge, Marx meets Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) and the transplanted Germans bond over their shared heritage and mutual respect for one another’s writing. This union will, of course, historically alter much of the world. The son of the sort of bourgeoisie tyrant that communism will vilify, Engels chronicled the awful conditions of the workers at his father’s English mill, which he would eventually expand into the 1845 book The Conditions of the Working Class in England. United in their contempt for capitalism, Marx and Engels attempt to foster a network to enable their theories and writing, courting Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet) and eventually joining and rebranding the League of the Just. The film efficiently dramatizes the road leading to the publishing of Marx and Engel’s monumental The Communist Manifesto, the 1848 political pamphlet that diagnosed capitalism as a corrupt construct rather than as an inevitable outgrowth of civilized society.
The film has evocative bits and pieces, particularly pertaining to the physical act of writing in the 19th century. Marx and Engels pour over piles of paper by candlelight, scratching out words and scribbling in phrases that will become legendary, while discussing strategy with their respective wives, Jenny (Vicky Krieps) and Mary (Hannah Steele). Such moments emphasize the endurance that’s required of writing. Yet The Young Karl Marx reminds one of the perils involved with making a film about brilliant obsessives: their single-mindedness, a pivotal and inescapable element of their success and talent, can grow repetitive and overbearing for audiences.
The film is rife with scenes in which characters voice sentiments like “I believe it is important to assert that materialism as we conceive it differs from bourgeois materialism by questing for a more humane society.” Such a line has a way of sucking the air out of a room. Marx and Engels are shown to be geniuses, but they’re rarely allowed to be human. Taken for granted is Engels’s love affair with the poverty-stricken Mary, which might’ve been used as a device to explicate his evolving empathy and political philosophy, or to at least inform the film with a hint of non-dialectical drama. Consequentially, the proletariat class—the primary concern of Marx and Engels’s work—is sketchily rendered, ironically leading to the sort of ideological “vagueness” that Marx dismisses throughout the film. James Baldwin’s writing abounds in what’s missing from The Young Karl Marx: political poetry that’s informed by the emotional contours of everyday human experience.