Magazine article Variety

The Young Karl Marx

Magazine article Variety

The Young Karl Marx

Article excerpt


The Young Karl Marx

Director: Raoul Peck

Starring: August Diehl, Stefan Konarske

Director Raoul Peck is a passionate and protean talent. He has been making films for close to 30 years, and he's right in the middle of his most seismic moment with "I Am Not Your Negro," his searching meditation on James Baldwin. In 2000, Peck made a galvanizing drama about Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo, that was the cinema's most perceptive (and agonizing) study of colonialism: what it is, how it works, and why its legacy is so hard to shake off.

Peck takes a different leap altogether with "The Young Karl Marx" a classically conceived and executed biopic that traces how Marx, as a struggling family-man writer in the 1840s, came to create "The Communist Manifesto." It's an impeccably crafted and honorable movie - but not a very enthralling one. If you didn't know Peck's name was on it, the movie would look like a so-so Merchant Ivory film from 1993. It's dutiful, but it's also superficial and polite, and it commits the genteel sin of the old biopics: It turns its hero into a plaster saint.

Is Karl Marx morally responsible for everything in the 20th century that happened in his name? Of course not. Yet if you look at that legacy - mass incarceration and death (in China, the Soviet Union, Cambodia) on a scale comparable, in some cases, to genocide - then you can at least ask the question: Was the madness of 20th-century Communism encoded in the naïveté of Marx's writings?

In "The Young Karl Marx," he's played by the German actor August Diehl as an eager, bushy-haired (and bushy-tailed) liberal philosopher, fighting for the proletariat even though he's never been a working man himself.

An opening title provides the context for Marx's struggle: The Industrial Revolution has arrived, and the old order that ruled Europe - the monarchy, the imperial aristocracy - is getting ready to topple. (It would have happened anyway; Marx gave it a nudge.) In the early scenes, when we meet Karl, all glorified schoolboy fire, and also Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), the bourgeois factory owner's son who becomes his comrade and writing partner, the movie makes the point that the whole scheme of analysis we think of as "Marxist" was already in place. The perception of the class system, the rage against the capitalist oppressors, the dream of a world in which workers would unite as brothers: Karl Marx didn't invent any of that. …

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