Striking throughout The Young Karl Marx, the new film by director Raoul Peck, is how often the three main characters smile at one another. It’s almost as if the actors playing Marx, his wife Jenny von Westphalen, and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels—who sometimes goes by “Fred”—couldn’t forget they were starring in a movie about the genesis of one of the world’s greatest ideas. An almost invisible self-awareness expresses itself as giddiness, even delight.
We follow the 24-year-old Marx (August Diehl) from his first arrest at the Cologne offices of the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung in 1842—during which he gently sasses the police—to his exile from France to Belgium and on to the composition of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Along the way, The Young Karl Marx revises any received idea of Marx as a cranky, aloof intellectual: Peck’s Karl is twitchy, charming, and decidedly not a lone genius. Almost all of his achievements are collaborative; he evinces little personal heroism, save a sense of duty and patience. And, unlike his pal Friedrich, he can’t seem to hold his booze.
When we first meet Karl, he’s just one voice shouting in a smoke-filled office as the police gather in the street. The Zeitung owes its success to him, and yet he’s brought persecution on the heads of its staff. Off to Paris, to form another paper! There, things calm down. We see him at home with Jenny (Vicky Krieps), an ex-aristocrat whose own intellectualism is knit into her every gesture and gentle quip. Shortly afterward, the pair is joined by a moon-eyed, puppyish Engels (Stefan Konarske), whom Karl adopts as his new best friend. Friedrich, fresh from writing The Condition of the Working Class in England, suggests that Karl supplement his German dialectics and French socialism by studying the English economists. And so the ground is laid for the completion of the Manifesto.
And that’s about all we get, in terms of plot and even of character development. There’s no significant crisis of faith, no backsliding, no ideological confusion (though Karl and Friedrich skirmish by pamphlet with the Young Hegelians and, later, with the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon). Never does The Young Karl Marx seem at all inclined to apologize for its use of unwavering ideological commitment as the plot’s main engine.
In an early scene, Jenny explains why she chose to marry a Jewish atheist and to raise their children in poverty: She wanted to bring a new world into being, she says, and to see that vieux monde craquer! Her fervor isn’t the least bit obnoxious; the line is delivered with tenderness and followed up by an exchange in which she begs Friedrich not to make Karl party so hard.
The Young Karl Marx’s earnestness is perhaps produced by the thorough identification of a director with his subject: Peck, like Marx, knew proletarian life (as a taxi driver in New York City), wrote and reported as a journalist (in Berlin, where he went to film school), and eventually served as a prominent political voice (as minister of culture in his native Haiti, decades after his family fled from Duvalier’s dictatorship). Marx, like Peck, was a man without a country, an exile and a polyglot. No surprise, either, that Peck brings both the documentarian’s factuality and the fiction filmmaker’s joie to his task. As with Peck’s 2000 biopic Lumumba and his 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, The Young Karl Marx pursues an ardent interest in communicating neglected social facts through both artful and largely historically accurate means. (The joie lies not least in the film’s lovably comic touches, including a historically unverifiable chase scene between Karl and Friedrich and the French immigration authorities.)
As with Lumumba and I Am Not Your Negro, The Young Karl Marx’s script derives in large part from historical documents—in this case, Marx’s and Engels’s works and correspondence. And the film makes proud use of French, German, and English, reveling almost dorkily in its multilingualism. In an early meeting with Proudhon, a pun on the French word traduire, to translate, as lying close to the word trahir, to betray, goes unglossed in the English subtitles, but it really pisses off Proudhon’s translator, who will later betray Karl and Friedrich—get it?
Many scenes offer similar nerdy pleasures, either for their historical accuracy or their more artful sensitivity to history. One historically unlikely but winning scene involving the Manifesto will please many an armchair Marxist: We see what may be the most philologically significant word of the text—that Gespenst, the specter, haunting Europe—inserted on the fly. Then there’s the game of spot-the-European-historical-figure to be played throughout the film: Wilhelm Weitling, Mikhail Bakunin, and Gustave Courbet all make appearances. The film also delicately spotlights, though it does not name, black Europeans and Haitian diplomats.
Perhaps because it isn’t an American film, The Young Karl Marx takes intellectual work, the work of organizing, and the work of constructing a just life seriously. There are no musical numbers. Jenny and Karl love each other, and they get a cool sex scene, but at the same time the film preserves the space outside bourgeois values that its characters carved out for themselves in life. In one scene, Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), Friedrich’s partner—the couple was never legally married, though they lived together for two decades—compliments Jenny on her daughters. Jenny then asks Mary whether she and Engels will have children.
No, says Mary, she doesn’t want them: Friedrich understands her need to be free. If he wants kids, she adds, he can have them with her little sister, who is just dying to drop a few. It’s a funny line, delivered with an almost bewildering self-awareness, and it baffles Jenny. It is a testament to Krieps’s acting that her dark eyes express exactly how an open, confident mind would respond to this vision of a life whose values were so different from her own: shocked, then amused, then curious.
Any Karl Marx movie also raises a more significant question, one that has little to do with the film’s quality and more to do with—no surprise here—its means of production. The people who are the most likely to see and think carefully about a Karl Marx movie are also likely to ask whether a Karl Marx movie could be anything other than an alibi for capitalism. But if capitalism has, at this late point, concentrated more than half of the world’s wealth in the hands of 1 percent of its population, maybe it’s time for a relatively mainstream film about anticapitalists who aren’t bumblers or schemers, as in the Coen brothers’ 2016 Hail, Caesar!, or the owners of large ranches, as in Jay Roach’s 2015 Trumbo.
Throughout The Young Karl Marx, we see glimmers of all sorts of often-unrepresented possibilities—promises of change without which there are no personal or political revolutions of any kind, in life or in the movies. It is daring that the subject of The Young Karl Marx is not its hero, that the young Marx’s biography is, in the end, secondary to the story of the Manifesto’s shared composition. The film flirts with bromance and with the theme of the revolutionary hero as a cover for, or as a sort of generic triangulation of, its deeper meaning, which is a more complex idea about love: that, borne along by love in all its forms—by solidarity, and sexual love, and love of family, and love for friends, none of which are mutually exclusive or oppositional, a fact about which the film is quietly firm—we can, as Friedrich once yells at Karl, “Wach auf!” Wake up!
This is ultimately what makes the film a romance of a true and much older kind, the kind that shares something with revel and with socially transformative comedy (and The Young Karl Marx is quite funny, it must be said, and jokes even about the fundamental doofiness of workers’ meetings). Romance is the genre of rebirth, of transformation, of coming to know that “everything can change,” that “nothing is forever,” as Karl tells a roomful of Parisians early in the film—and that once a person has woken up, there is no going back to sleep.
Of course Peck’s vision of the working class is too rosy; of course the film idealizes revolution. But that quibbling seems beside the point. At certain moments, it is very possible to simply be charmed by this good movie, which is precisely why a person can learn a great deal from The Young Karl Marx—a little about political economy, and maybe a lot about love and how to keep it free. “Il n’y a pas de bonheur sans revolte,” says Jenny to Friedrich: There is no happiness without revolt. But equally, there is no revolt without the promise of happiness.