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.)