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“The Young Karl Marx”

A film review

After a month in American theaters, the box office for “The young Karl Marx” was all of $58,277. This is almost incomprehensible as this is a wonderful, politically, historically and culturally rich film.

A major international collaboration with first rate foreign actors, the film played at a single indie theater on the Lower East Side called the Metrograph. The “Rotten Tomatoes” movie review aggregator reports critics are 57% favorable, the audience 73%. The best-regarded film reviewers give it higher marks. The film was first shown at the Berlin Film Festival, February 2017.

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“The young Karl Marx” is not just about Marx. It’s about Friedrich Engels as well, and about the Marx/Engels collaboration that produced the Communist Manifesto and a shelf of books at the beginnings of the European working-class movement.

Marx and Engels are in the mid-20s. Have you ever imagined what Marx looked like and how he behaved at the age of 25, in the middle 1840s? This is an interesting thought experiment. It was too early for photos of course. The main image of Marx we all have in our imaginations is the older Marx looking like Moses in the 1870s or so.

Yet Marx and Engels were once 25 years old.

The director/scriptwriter is Raoul Peck, a Haitian filmmaker, a political intellectual who, among other things, was Haiti’s minister of culture (1996-1997). Peck has done both documentary and feature films. His 2016 film about the life of American writer James Baldwin, “I am not your Negro,” was nominated for an Oscar in 2017. Peck’s co-scriptwriter was the Frenchman, Pascal Bonitzer. One of the film’s three producers was the Frenchman Robert Guediguian, winner of numerous prizes, among his films a 2005 fictionalized account of François Mitterrand’s last months (he died in 1996), called “Le promeneur du Champs de Mars”.

The film reviews range from the respectful to enthusiastic. One reviewer already speaks of an Academy Award nomination, which I second. Imagine the awful task of the serious reviewer condemned to say something, anything, interesting about the latest Marvel movie, or an Adam Sandler or Jennifer Lawrence movie, or a prequel to a sequel of (fill in the blank).

Karl Marx, Marx and Engels, the great writings at the beginnings of socialism and communism, are of historical-philosophical consequence. Tragically, many of the critics, even the sophisticated ones, pander to their readers with the notion that the historic meeting between Marx and Engels is a “bromance.” Like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.

Here’s one eminent reviewer’s way of putting it:

“The history of the world may be the history of class struggle, but the history of class struggle — at least the decisive chapter chronicled in ‘The Young Karl Marx’ — turns out to be a buddy movie. Marx, a scruffy journalist, and his sidekick Friedrich Engels, a renegade rich kid, meet in Cologne, Germany, in 1844 and overcome some initial wariness by bonding over their shared contempt for the Young Hegelians. (Man, those guys are lame.) They set out to write a “Critique of Critical Criticism,” and when it’s published (as ‘The Holy Family’), it’s something of a hit. By the time the revolutions of 1848 are ready to happen, Marx and Engels are the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the European left, rock stars for an age of revolution.” (A. O. Scott, New York Times, February 22, 2018.)

Yet Scott’s review is overall sympathetic and even knowledgeable. He says, insightfully, that the combination of “a highly individualized picture of the authors of a doctrine of collective struggle” rescues the film “from the twin dangers of tedium and sentimentality.”

But a buddy movie?

The script is a cosmopolitan mixture of three languages — German, French and English — a reflection of the cosmopolitanism of the early socialists themselves. This means there’s considerable sub-titling, probably one reason American audiences are put off by the film.

Playing Marx’s wife, the aristocrat Jenny von Westphalen, a “traitor to her class” as it used to be said, is the extraordinary Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis’s co-star in “Phantom Thread”. She’s Luxembourgeoise so her fluency in all three is not so surprising. Two German actors, Auguste Diehl, as Marx, and Stefan Konarske, are fluent in all three as well.

Anyone who came of age in the 60s will experience a shock of recognition. This is what it must have been like, a knowledgeable imagining of what Marx and Engels themselves were like when comradeship began. Marx and Engels in their mid-20s.

And now here we all are in the year 2018.

To quote Lenin from another context, “Es schwindelt.”

Ronald Tiersky is the Joseph B. Eastman Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. His books include François Mitterrand: A Very French President (2003),Euro-Scepticism (2001), France in the New Europe (1994), Ordinary Stalinism (1985), and French Communism 1920-1972 (1974). This piece first appeared on RealClearWorld. The Young Karl Marx can be streamed on Amazon.

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Ronald Tiersky

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