No matter where you sit on the ideological spectrum, you cannot deny that Karl Marx has influenced the tone and timbre of economic discussion for the last 170 years. Whether you revile or rejoice in The Communist Manifesto, in many ways the points made there by Marx and his writing partner Friedrich Engels has shaped and informed the ideals to which we which we seek to live up even today. Capitalism has, for almost two centuries now, attempted to rectify the problems Marx and Engels highlighted within itself, both as a defense and response to the specter of communism.
For a man who so heavily influenced the economic discussion and reactions of the globe, many are still blind about who and what he was. Especially here in these United States. Here, we like to throw out “Marx” and “Marxism” in derisive tones, immediately disallowing for conversation about the man and his ideas. Even if we ultimately find ourselves disagreeing with his conclusions (re: the need for Communism) knowing what it was he was attempting to solve could go a long way towards preventing many of the issues he predicted.
What’s most remarkable about The Young Karl Marx is how palatable it makes Marx and his ideas for audiences who might otherwise be inclined to dismiss them without a second thought. What this film does best is contextualize not just Marx the man, but Marxism the philosophy, giving us the historical background to understand the whats and whys of his thinking better than any previous attempts have ever managed.
Coming on the heels of last 2016’s stunning I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck once again delivers a film that challenges audiences to rethink what they think they know and view his subject under a new light. He and his co-writer, Pascal Bonitzer (who previously collaborated together on 2010’s Murder in Pacot) have managed to distill their subject in a way that’s incredibly accessible and interesting.
As suggested by the title, the film follows Karl Marx before Karl Marx was a name we know. August Diehl (Inglorious Basterds) plays Marx in his rise in among the radical communist groups of 19th century Europe as his philosophies are solidified and his partnerships made. He struggles with taking care of his wife, Jenny (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) and their sickly child until he meets his future partner Engels (Stefan Konarske) and forms a friendship that will, quite literally, change the world.
Setting it in the era that it does, The Young Karl Marx allows for a deeply rich exploration of the economic situations of the time, which further allows us the opportunity to gain perspective on what Marx believed and was trying to accomplish. Even if you find yourself on the anti-Marx side of the discussion, it is important to realize just what his fight was about and what his philosophy was trying to fix.
We often discuss the working class today, and the conditions they’re forced to endure, but (especially in this country) the modern working class finds themselves infinitely better off than their compatriots in the 19th century. People tend to forget or gloss over the horrendous conditions of the working class of that era in their wholesale dismissals of Marxism. If Marxism did nothing else, it forced the conversation of working conditions for the men and women (and children) of the era, forcing capitalism to course correct in order to stay relevant.
Peck showcases this remarkably, delving deep into the realities of the era and giving context to what we might be pre-conditioned to demonize. Marx’s ideals make a lot of sense when we remember the era he was living in, even if we believe they’re no longer relevant today. I’ll leave that relevance to better minds in more appropriate venues, but The Young Karl Marx certainly gives us a lot to mull over as we find ourselves, once again, fighting for the rights and dignities of the working class.
While not as incendiary as I Am Not Your Negro, The Young Karl Marx continues to showcase Peck’s remarkable abilities as a filmmaker. This is a grand film with epic designs, and Peck scales up beautifully, bringing to life the dismal realities of the era to stunning display. His cast eagerly matches his ability, especially Diehl, whose Marx is captivating, nuanced, and all too human.
The Young Karl Marx is an important film, whether you agree or disagree with Marxism as an economic philosophy. Even the staunchly capitalist need to see that capitalism still has its deficiencies, almost two centuries after Marx’s scathing critiques. Some might argue that the worst of his predictions have already come to fruition. Again, I’ll leave that to better minds. But either way it’s important to more fully understand the critiques if we intend on preventing them from actually happening. The Young Karl Marx goes a long way towards facilitating that understanding.
The Young Karl Marx is now playing in select cities.