“The Young Karl Marx” (“Le jeune Karl Marx”)
The Early Years
Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck introduces us to Karl Marx (August Diehl) in 1844, when he is 26 and living in Paris with his wife, Jenny (Vicky Krieps). Jenny is a woman from an aristocratic family who gave up on her fortune to share her life with “this socialist, atheist Jew”, as she lovingly calls him. They are surviving off the little bit of money that Marx makes from writing for philosophical and political journals that are soon going to be shut down by the French government.
At the same time in Manchester, Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) is becoming increasingly bitter because of the working conditions in the factories that his father owns. He distances himself from his own class and becomes involved in circles of European philosophers and thinkers and this leads him to meeting and befriending Marx.
The two will develop a connection and eventually a considerable following made up of many different revolutionary thinkers of the time, including French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet) and German radical activist Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer), as well as the London-based League of the Just, which they will eventually become the Communist League.
The film is based primarily on the letters that Marx and Engels exchanged and it also gives us the political and social climate of the time, introducing us to important historical personalities and movements that are today partly forgotten, or not in our awareness. We are taken back in time to when strong-willed and thinking men developed connections and moved public opinion. The relationships that we see in the film are just as present and important as the historical struggles.
Aside from the Bible, no other book has shaped the last century more than Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”. In three volumes, he totally dissected the class system that capitalism was built on and reached out to people all over the world to disrupt this exploitation. The film recounts Marx’s formative years as a young man and a rebel-rouser. Marx and Engels struggled for years to make their writing be understood by all audiences.
August Diehl plays the young Marx as a handsome rebel with a cause who’s ready to pick a fight with anyone who’ll listen. Vicky Krieps as his wife, Jenny; modern and astute in her own right, gives us charming relief while the dialogue struggles and often becomes banal exposition. Within a few years, Marx and Engles accomplished an unprecedented revolution of ideas. They broke with German idealism and placed the understanding of society on a materialistic basis discovering class struggle as the driving force of history and developed socialism from a utopia into a science.
While Stalinism destroyed the Soviet Union, Marxism is more relevant today than ever before. The global financial crisis, outrageous levels of social inequality, growing militarism, and the rise to prominence of extreme right-wing figures such as Donald Trump in the US—all of this has prompted many to turn to Marx to find a way out of the impasse of capitalism. Even Marx’s opponents are forced to take his insights seriously once again.
Director Peck is well aware of the timeliness of his theme. “At a time when the world is in a state of emergency due to the financial crisis, Karl Marx is experiencing unexpected interest today as the world finds itself in a financial crisis. The film sets out to discover the real contribution of Marx as a scientific and political thinker. The collaboration between Marx and Engels is the focus of much of the movie. Peck also looks at the contributions of Marx’s wife, Jenny von Westphalen, and Engels’ wife Mary Burns, an Irish worker. We see how the two men inspire one another and develop a close personal friendship.
One of the main focal points of the film is Engels’ experience in England with his father’s textile business in Manchester where he worked as a clerk and saw the terrible living quarters of the working class. We see that it was Engels who pointed out to Marx the importance of the writings of the classical English economists.
The last third of the film deals with the activities of Marx and Engels in the League of the Just. It shows that even at that time they worked intensively to establish an international party of the working class. The film ends with the music of a Bob Dylan song and a rapid sequence of images of catastrophes, key events, political figures and protests of the past 100 years. It features images of Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba and the Occupy movement, but not of Lenin and Trotsky and the October Revolution. In this way, the film glorifies the type of petty-bourgeois politics that Marx, as the film vividly shows, entirely rejected.