The Young Karl Marx: The Poverty of Philosophy, by David Bax
Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx is like a striking laborer; it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work as a biopic. It doesn’t work as a treatise on Marx and his writings. It only maybe barely works as some sort of gloomy, mid-19th century European travelogue (“This dreary room is in Manchester! And this one is in Paris! And this one is in Brussels!”). It’s hard to believe this is the same Peck who so recently gave us the stirring, yearning documentary I Am Not Your Negro. It makes it seem like, unlike James Baldwin, Marx was more head than heart.
Marx (August Diehl, Inglourious Basterds) and his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) move from city to city, scraping by on what little Marx can make from his articles before they get him exiled again. When they meet Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), the son of a wealthy industrialist and fellow revolutionary writer, their partnership helps Marx’s ideas and influence spread wider.
If that all sounds a bit dry, that’s because it is. The Young Karl Marx is, by design, no traditional biopic but perhaps it could have learned a couple lessons from the genre, like an emotional hook or characters who display some sort of relatable humanity. The closest Peck comes to an impassioned crescendo is when Engels successfully pushes through a procedural vote on an organizational name change. Perhaps this is meant to be some kind of structuralism at work on Peck’s part; a dialectic overview of a man whose entire legacy is his written theories.
But does the movie also have to look boring? Despite some impressively thorough production design and art direction, Peck’s camera refuses to differentiate between one smoke-filled room or another, or even the occasional gloomy beach. Each pointlessly widescreen frame is the same blend of light brown and gray, with compositions that are comprehensible but never striking.
Peck portrays the income disparity that ought to make The Young Karl Marx relevant to a modern audience, mostly in the form of Mary Burns (Hannah Steele, Wolf Hall), one of Engels’ father’s employees. But little is done to illustrate how this unfair and exploitative scheme functions or where it comes from. So we’re left with our protagonists raging at a system we don’t understand, which reduces the crucial work the real Marx did to empty posturing.
This is how Peck has failed his subject and the socialist legacy he left behind. The Young Karl Marx is less about Marx’s ideas than about how he expressed them. Without any hint of emotion or immediacy, we’re left with a depiction that will be recognizable to “Film Twitter,” a bunch of overconfident men jockeying for position by being dicks to each other.