The Young karl marx

Review by Patrick O'Donoghue 

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Raoul Peck’s chronicling of the formative years of one of history’s most influential thinkers in this enthralling biopic is a timely work given today’s current political and social environment. Peck seeks to resurrect the genius of Marx and offer it in visual form to the modern world. For this reason, it cannot be refuted that this biopic is nothing short of a hagiography. A film designed to venerate, and marvel at, the legacy of Karl Marx (August Diehl) and the sheer force of his hyperactive intellectual activity. Therefore, the question is: how well is Marx’s immortal message to all future generations communicated? The answer is: pretty damn well. Montages of the plight and persecution of the beleaguered working classes who suffer at the hands of their rulers are blended with extracts from Marx’s early writings throughout the film. This has the effect of elevating the audience’s consciousness to the point where we begin to contextualise the callous sacking of textile factory workers, the destitution of wheezing children cast out onto dingy street corners, and the febrile zeitgeist that seemed ripe for revolution at the time, in terms of the structural injustice of Capitalism itself. Peck uses his cinematic sensibility to drag us onside in such a way that we find ourselves joining in the chorus that cries out for the ‘’old world’s’’ demise.

The Young Karl Marx is notable for its tender, intimate rendering of Marx’s personal life. Diehl manages to capture all the wit, madness and charisma of Marx’s brilliant mind. This is no more obvious than in one particular scene where Marx and his family are exiled from France due to his subversive attempts to incite revolution. Despite the gravity of this personal tragedy for Marx and his wife and children, Marx still affords himself a wry smile, hinting at the almost maniacal ebullience of a man revelling in the insanity of stepping into the unknown. We are also privy to the restless hellraising of Marx’s youth as we witness him drinking himself, on more than one occasion, into oblivion and retching down dark alleyways. His untouchable intelligence and purity of spirit is also displayed when Marx defiantly combats efforts to compromise his free thinking made by publishers, politicians and the faint-hearted. In this film the audience is also treated to a tender portrayal of the many flaws and weaknesses of Marx as a father, husband and friend. Perhaps overshadowing Marx’s intellectual success is the failure he experiences in providing security for his loved ones. Struggling to find employment and forcing his family to lead a nomadic existence, constantly on the run from establishment authorities, Marx’s life is depicted as often humiliating, and almost always destitute. However, Peck serves us up instances of powerful redemption in moments like the birth of one of Marx’s children. This conception also acts as a beautiful metaphor for the transformed world Marx is struggling  to conceive of and bring into being through his writing.

They say that behind every great man there’s a great woman, this adage is no more true than in relation to the life of Karl Marx. Vicky Krieps, who plays Marx’s wife Jenny, is every bit as formidable, strong-minded and valiant as her beloved husband. In addition, Marx’s loyal companion Engels (Stefan Konarske) acts as an intellectual jousting-partner for Marx and is responsible for nurturing and honing Marx’s erratic, unfocused talent. Engels had it all. He possessed wealth, power and privilege, and yet he threw all that away to fight with Marx for a utopian ideal. This biopic teaches us that selflessness of this kind is not to be underestimated.

The equal primacy of ideas and action is masterfully illustrated by Peck in this ode to an immeasurably great figure of the 20th century. The theoretical and the practical are harmoniously synthesised despite having seemed incompatible before the emergence of Marx’s Communist doctrines. The Young Karl Marx offers a compelling portrait of the life and times of a man who, against all odds, built a permanent bridge between the two. The general attitude of this biopic can be summed up by one of Marx’s most profound declarations “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’’