Film Review: The Young Karl Marx

Oscar-nominated director Raoul Peck delivers an intellectually engaging, if not terribly exciting, biography of Marx and his cronies launching a movement.
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A compelling portrayal of the fruitful meeting of great minds, the multilingual biographical drama The Young Karl Marx plots a wordy course through the origins of Marx and co-writer Friedrich Engels’ seminal political pamphlet Manifesto of the Communist Party.

The outspoken philosopher and journalist Marx (August Diehl), a German Jew, resides in 1840s Paris with his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps), a loyal believer in her husband’s theories on labor and society. Born of an aristocratic family in the couple’s hometown of Trier, Jenny is happy to forgo the trappings of wealth, and any relationship with her kin, to stand by her middle-class husband’s struggle for the poor and working class. “Happiness requires rebellion,” she pronounces.

Deemed arrogant by his colleagues, Marx generally lives up to his principles and Jenny’s faith in his vision. He’s more than willing to spend a few nights in a Prussian jail to stand against censorship and defend his subversive, antimonarchist articles and essays. Marx’s writing gains him some notoriety among Europe’s great thinkers of the day, and he and Jenny’s growing family gets by, barely, on his sporadic writer’s income, supplemented by the generosity of friends. But no friend can come to their aid when they’re brusquely exiled from France, along with several other rabble-rousers of their political cohort.

Landing in Brussels, Marx crosses paths with fellow twenty-something iconoclast Friedrich “Freddie” Engels (Stefan Konarske), the German son of a factory owner. Presented on a parallel story track destined to collide with Marx’s, Engels moonlights from his desk job at his father’s textile mill in Manchester, England, to study the union activism of workers like Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), an Irish-born proto-Norma Rae who raises hell with management at the mill over the treatment of child labor.

Freddie tracks Mary down in the city’s Irish slum, where he hopes to find subjects for his treatise on living conditions of the working class in Manchester and Leeds. In a similar fashion, he hunts down Marx, whom he recalls meeting at a salon hosted by the famed writer and artist Bettina von Arnim.

The film, directed by Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro), spends much of its first hour flagrantly name-dropping prominent figures within, and opposed to, Marx and Engel’s fast-evolving movement. Even a well-informed viewer might need several addenda of footnotes to tell all the historical players apart. Ultimately, whether one is well-versed in the works of Hegelians, Anarchists or Communists, or none of the above, the film shuffles names and faces into fairly uncomplicated categories of those who agree with Marx and those who don’t. Those who don’t usually are summarily put in their place with some withering polemic delivered by Marx or his proxies, Engels and Jenny.

Diehl, Krieps and Konarske each find a credible, dynamic approach to playing the lead trio’s impenetrable idealism. Diehl’s Marx is confident but not incapable of expressing vulnerability. He smokes cheap cigars, makes love, cuddles with his wife, and in his own words is no anarchist, even if he’s determined to upset the world order. Krieps, building on her recent fine performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, essays an enthralling version here, too, of devotion guided by intelligence, not just submission.

Pictured as young rhetorical warriors ready to mount a revolution wielding the pen or the sword, Marx and Engels, and to some degree Jenny, gather an aura of romance and righteousness that can come off as propagandistic. Engels woos Marx into philosophical and political partnership by praising the wild-haired writer as “the greatest materialist thinker of our time. You’re a genius.” The movie appears to support the sentiment.

And any actual romance in the story inspires mixed results: While Marx and Jenny are like soul mates, the coupling of Freddie and Mary feels like a complete afterthought. Depicting period pleasures is not this film’s priority, as could be inferred from the dour palette of browns and grays and lengthy, complex debates about capital and Communism. Rather, The Young Karl Marx endeavors to characterize the committed visionary behind an era-defining worldview, and it succeeds by depicting how the power of his thinking—influenced by Engels and anarchists like Bakunin and Proudhon, among others—led to a manifesto that moved all of civilization.

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