What it's about: Karl Marx is a young idealist speaking for the impoverished across Europe in times of rapid industrial development. His journal writing has opened political opportunities, though the ruling classes and less controversial thinkers are able to hold him off. After he meets Friedrich Engels, the son of a wealthy factory owner, the two begin to establish a political working class based on the ideology that their labor is exploited by the wealthy. Despite political and legal opposition, they begin to make headway into the establishment, ultimately leading to the creation of their most important life's work: a manifesto of Communist principles that would become one of the cornerstone political texts of the 20th Century.
Director Raoul Peck made one of my favorite films from a few years ago, the documentary profile of James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. That work was both intellectually and formally vital, a masterwork for oppressed people. Not only was it radical in its content, but also in its documentary design. This makes the follow up The Young Karl Marx even more disappointing.
The film tries to balance the philosophy with Marx's personal life struggles. Focusing more on the pure ideas could have inspired a more radical style. But the aims of the film definitely seem middlebrow -- The Young Karl Marx doesn't distinguish itself from the majority of historical biopics out there.
Marx and Engels are obviously figures that would interest Peck, who has spent most of his career making both fiction and non-fiction films about the vocal leaders of the poor and disenfranchised. The characterizations of these characters aren't quite as strong as I expected. Their dialogue doesn't build them as real historical figures as much as it presents their ideology.
The most interesting character through much of the film is Marx's wife Jenny, played by Phantom Thread's Vicky Krieps. In the first half of the film, Jenny brings an integral passion for the ideas [and for Marx, the man] and her role as the sounding board for her husband's ideas is built as an equal partnership. In the film's second half, however, she disappears into motherhood, sidelined from the action literally to deliver a baby. This is perhaps an inescapable circumstance of real life, but it was disappointing on a narrative level.
Marx's ideology is presented in mostly generic biopic ways, with arguments around wooden tables and stump speeches in front of rowdy crowds. This style makes it all stale -- I never felt challenged, the potentially controversial rhetoric never felt controversial.
As the film tours around Europe to describe specific milestones in Marx's life, there is no cinematic way to differentiate between Brussels or Manchester or Paris. Timeline captions suggest segmented setpieces, though everything is smushed together without any real strong sense of time or place.
By the end of The Young Karl Marx, I couldn't help but think of this film as anything but the origin story of something more compelling. The film ends with Marx and Engels [along with their wives] crafting The Communist Manifesto, but we are only told of the work's impact through on-screen text. The revolutions that swept across Europe and around the world would certainly bring the opportunity for something more cinematic and intellectually rich.
The disappointing on-screen text finale leads to a mini-documentary told in minutes over the credits. Images of the poverty struggle and protest, from the early Communist revolutions, to key figures like Mandela, to the recent housing crisis, all scored to the most famous Bob Dylan protest song, build the story that you would want Peck to tell. The impact of the style, clear voice, and brevity make it by far the most interesting section of The Young Karl Marx. This only goes to show just how dull the previous 2 hours of The Young Karl Marx proper was. It is a reminder that Raoul Peck does have things to say on the subject. I'm not sure why he didn't take his opportunity.