Station: 19th Century Political Biopic
Time Travel Destination: 1843-1848, Cologne, London, Manchester, Paris, Brussels, Ostend, etc.
Conductor: Raoul Peck
“In early 1843, Europe, ruled by absolute monarchs, wracked by crises, famine and recession, is on the verge of profound change.”
On the heels of his critically acclaimed documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016), director Raoul Peck brings audiences something vastly different but still as potent in its political message. The Young Karl Marx (2017) tells the story of two German philosophers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, their friendship, trials and tribulations and the birth of Communism and Marx’s Communist Manifesto. August Diehl stars as Karl Marx, the headstrong and arrogant writer who is constantly getting in trouble for his radical ideas. Struggling to make ends meet for his growing family, Marx is battling the internal struggle of his passion for social justice and making a decent living. His partner is his equally headstrong wife, former socialite Jenny von Westphalen-Marx (Vicky Krieps), who gave up her comfortable life for the love of Marx and his ideas. They try to make a go of it in Paris but are soon exiled from France. In the meantime, another young philosopher Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), lives a conflicted life in Manchester, England. He works for his father, a successful mill owner and tyrant to his workers, and is constantly butting heads with him. Inspired by outspoken worker Mary Burns (Hannah Steele)’s protest of his father’s treatment of the mill workers, Engels seeks out justice. Marx and Engels meet and become fast friends. Over the next few years they fight for the proletariat and against the bourgeoisie. They know something big is about to happen and won’t let anything or anyone get in their way.
Peck’s biopic could have easily been called The Young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels because it focuses almost equally on both historic figures. However, it would have been a convoluted title and Marx is the one whom is best known to contemporary audiences. While you don’t have to be pro-communism to appreciate the political message of this film you do have to have some interest in liberal philosophy, political history and social justice. Even Peck within the confines of the movie, leaves room for doubt. In one scene Arnold Ruge (Hans-Uwe Bauer) warns Marx to not follow in Martin Luther’s footsteps, when Luther broke down Catholic dogma only to help usher in an equally intolerant religion. I thought this to be quite powerful.
I consider myself very liberal so I was fascinated by the story of these two important 19th century figures. If you enjoyed Elizabeth Gaskell’s social justice novel North & South (or its mini-series adaptation), about the working poor of mill town Manchester, England around the same time of Engels and Marx, you’ll want to see The Young Karl Marx. Especially if you have an interest in the political message of that story and want to explore it more deeply.
Written by Pascal Bonitzer and Raoul Peck, the original screenplay really hones in on a dark time in European history. I was especially impressed in the character portrayals of Marx and Engels. These are two figures caught in conflicting worlds. Marx is torn between stability and his passion. Engels is caught between his bourgeoisie upbringing and his desire to help the proletariat. Both Diehl as Marx and Konarske as Engels play their parts with great tenacity and attention to detail. I was particularly impressed how the filmmakers incorporated two strong female characters in what could have solely been a movie about two men. Actress Vicky Krieps, best known for her stand out performance in the Academy Award nominated Phantom Thread (2017), is a delight as Marx’s wife Jenny. Even when she hangs out in the background she makes her voice heard and everyone, especially Marx, respects her for it. Mary Burns, played by Hannah Steele, is feisty, brash and outspoken and Engels falls head over heels for her and rightly so. In the movie they marry but in real life Engels felt marriage was repressive construct of culture and they were lifelong romantic partners instead. In the film though you still get a sense that their union is anything but ordinary.
The Young Karl Marx felt as real as a biopic set in different parts of Europe could possibly be. Lots of on location shooting helps. Peck and his team filmed in France, Belgium and Germany. There is a keen attention to period detail and I always felt like I was thrust into the world of 1840s Europe and not a movie about 1840s Europe. But one thing that stands out about this film is that it’s trilingual. German, French and English are spoken interchangeably throughout the film depending on the location, circumstances and characters in the scene. This is truly European. I myself am trilingual (English, Spanish and Portuguese) with many family members in Europe who all speak more than one language. I love that Peck’s film embraces multiple languages instead of having one language pretend to be all three. The end result is an exercise in attention and comfort with subtitles that is truly worth the effort.
The film ends a month before Revolutions of 1848. It’s a time capsule of just a few years in Marx and Engels’ lives but an important one that helps us begin to understand what is to follow.
Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx is a powerful, multi-lingual biopic that explores inequality and class struggles within the context of the lives of two influential philosophers. Highly recommended.
The Young Karl Marx debuted in New York and LA last week and a national roll out is to follow.