Director Raoul Peck seems to have a thing for revolutionary intellectuals. Last year he was nominated for the Documentary Feature Oscar for his film, I Am Not Your Negro, about the life of James Baldwin. Now, in a work of historical fiction (which tracks very closely with factual records), he looks at the founders of modern communism with The Young Karl Marx, which features some excellent performances from something close to an ensemble cast, but gets a little bit muddied in its overall message.
Marx is cast as a firebrand and a provocateur, played with feisty antagonism by German actor August Diehl. Set in the 1840s, the film takes place over a number of years from when Marx first started working professionally with Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), to the publication of The Communist Manifesto. The film debuted at the Berlin Film Festival last year, and was released commercially in Germany last March. Now it’s finally come stateside.
Jumping languages between German, French, and English even more frequently than the film jumps locations throughout Europe (the language rarely corresponding to the set country), the two form an instant rapport over their debates. Marx is an idealist who can counter any argument without setting his own agenda on the table, while Engels, the son of a mill owner, constantly feels like a hypocrite and a charlatan because he’s observed the plight of the working class, but never had to suffer with them (apart from the indignities of being partially disowned by his family and their bourgeois associates). The film is at its best when Marx and Engels just talk as friends and exchange ideas, but there are times when the dialogue collapses under its own weight, bogging the film down in repartee. Talk without action is rarely compelling, but it’s to the credit of Peck and his two leads that they can keep it going for as long as they do without becoming trite.
While the film is named for Marx, he and Engels share basically equal screen time. The film is more procedural than one based on plot and conflict, though it’s not for lack of trying on Marx’s part. He challenges everyone, often devolving into insult and attempted intellectual assassination. It’s hard to see who’s side he’s on at any given moment, himself included. He even snaps at Engels a few times, and they have the type of relationship that in another film could be turned into a buddy comedy. The only character who never becomes a target of his bile is his wife, Jenny, played by Phantom Thread‘s Vicky Krieps.
The film is at times captivating, but at the same time, it can become tiresome. For a film about the man who literally wrote the book on communism, the academic debate is surprisingly unfocused. The whole point of the book is to make the class war struggle between bourgeois and proletariat as relatable and translatable as possible to the uneducated, but 80% of the film’s run time is spent having high-minded debates on the nature of property and theft. Also, for some reason Marx has a couple dreams about poor people being murdered in a forest for taking sticks that never really gets explained or paid off.
Now, I’m biased on this next point, I’ll admit, but my favorite part of the film is the supporting role of Mary Burns, an Irish textile worker in Engels’ father’s mill, who is fired for speaking out about working conditions and eventually becomes Engels’ wife. Now, the bias for me is that I will always have a soft spot for fiery, redheaded Irish girls, and Hannah Steele (who’s mostly done TV work, including an episode of Doctor Who and Black Mirror) delivers in spades. But more importantly, as the only character in the entire film who actually lives a working class life, she’s the audience surrogate. She can get her licks in, speaking with more of a silver tongue than her intellectual counterparts at times. She can also flick a switch and become the comic relief. There’s a particularly hilarious moment when Marx castigates his former allies in the League of the Just, smacking them verbally in both French and German until they leave in disgust. Once they’re all gone, it’s down to Mary, who only speaks English, to exclaim, “What the fuck just happened?!” Trust me, she’s not the only one who felt that exasperation.
If you want to see this film, I’d recommend it, though you’ll probably have to find an indie or arthouse theatre to see it before a DVD release. The film has its flaws, mostly a lack of action to justify all the dialogue. History unfolds offscreen while the characters talk about it passionately later. But the performances are strong from the main four, and yeah, Hannah Steele is such a delight that I’ll be looking for her next project.
Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you want me to see more foreign/indie films or stick to conventional, commercial releases? Do you prefer rich dialogue, fast-paced action, or a combination of the two? Are you with the FBI, monitoring me for even mentioning communism? Let me know!