A Film a Week - The Young Karl Marx / Le jeune Karl Marx

Contrary to his serious-as-heart-attack philosophical and economical scriptures, Karl Marx, at least in his youth years, was an interesting person. Being usually the smartest person in the room didn’t prevent him to be a drunken, irresponsible asshole, which makes him almost ideal subject of an insightful, informative, light-weight and fun to watch biopic as is the case with Raoul Peck’s (Lumumba, last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro) The Young Karl Marx that covers the philosopher's years in Paris, Brussels and London.

“The atheist, socialist Jew”, as his wife half-seriously calls himself, Karl Marx (played by August Deihl of Inglorious Basterds, The Counterfeiters and Allied fame) tries to provide for his family in bubbling, post-Bonaparte Paris as a writer of thought-provoking articles in German and French journals. He and his “fallen” aristocratic wife Jenny von Westphalen (Vicki Kreips of A Most Wanted Man) are living in relative poverty and their baby is constantly getting ill. Instead of exploring other career options, both of them frequent leftist political manifestations, getting in touch with political figures as anarchists Proudhon (played like a wise Zen-master by Olivier Gourmet), Bakunin and Weitling (Alexander Scheer).

There he also meets (for the second time, which is one of film’s punchline) young, boyishly good-looking and bourgeois well-behaved Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), son of wealthy industrialist and already an author of the famous economical study The Condition of the Working Class in England. The bromance starts and the rest is history: the invention of “Scientific Socialism”, the transformation of The League of the Just into The League of Communists, and taking over the international workers movement.

The film has a considerable educational value. The script written by Peck and French veteran screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer uses the real letters two of the minds behind scientific, revolutionary socialism exchanged throughout the years as the primary source so the audience, especially the ones who haven’t wrestled with Marxism in high-school and college years, can see the real people behind the philosophy, social, economical and political theory. The level of mutual respect and commitment to the work from the duo is commendable and the fun they have theoreticising seems great.

Also, Peck and Bonitzer have a good eye for the details of the period, not just the visual details, but the complete atmosphere considering the class system, early form of liberal capitalism not squeamish towards the child labor and the constant threat of repression and surveillance. Some would say that nothing much has changed since, since nowadays capitalism is as brutal as the one from almost 200 years ago and new revolutions are being debated in caffes and apartments in vibrant, metropolitan cities.

The other qualities of the script are its witty dialogues and a strong level of self-consciousness that transforms into brilliant irony that pictures socialism either as a blind idealist or as a destructive fantasy cooked in the minds of upper classes. Having in mind the historical events following the intellectual adventurism of Marx, Engels and the rest of the bunch, it is fair to say that the prominent socialists maybe detested bourgeois sense of morality, but were first to accept the enemy’s goods and lifestyle as their own. The love for champaign is inherent, some would say.

The irony extends even to the meta-level, knowing that the director of this biopic is Raoul Peck, former Haitian minister of culture, and a political figure par excellence. It is safe to assume that it takes to be a “champaign socialist” to know one. Otherwise, his sense of directing is clear and lucid enough not to get in the way of an interesting material up until the very end destroyed by on the nose symbolism of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and montage of the revolutionary events from the 20th century. There is no Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or Honecker (if we want to stay on the grounds of German socialism), though.

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