Most people going out with their mates for a few drinks and talking about philosophy don’t end up achieving much. Karl Marx went out drinking with his pal Friedrich Engels; after a few too many cognacs and lots of heated discussion about the Hegelian dialectic (a pleasant reminder of Hail, Caesar!), he ends up deciding to change the world with his ideas. Arguably, he did.
Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx is like an superhero origin story, or a prequel to a more famous life. It often feels one scene away from him saying something like “I know! We’ll call it… Das Kapital!” and there is, indeed, a scene where Engels launches the communist party to rapturous cheering. That said, there’s yet to be a Marvel film that mostly consists of people talking to one another about the nuances of materialism.
Peck’s film is undeniably talky, and there’s little in the way of film-making flair to distract you from that. This has the production values and handsome cinematography of a BBC period drama such as the excellent North & South (although even that had some brighter visual ideas). Normally, that would be enough to dismiss The Young Karl Marx as a stodgy and uninspired film.
Yet, somehow, the film remains gripping throughout. The exchange of ideas is electrifying, and the talky, intellectual screenplay doesn’t dumb down for a moment. August Diehl as Marx, Stefan Konarske as Engels and Vicky Krieps, a vital third player as Marx’s ex-aristocratic wife Jenny, bring the dense dialogue to life with vivid, spirited performances. Every discussion feels more like a heated chat between friends than an undergraduate philosophy tutorial.
The cultural popularity of Marxism waxes and wanes and, with this film, Peck makes a solid case for its return. Early on, the voiceover quotes Montesquieu, saying that there are two kinds of corruption, one where you break the laws and one where the law itself allows evil. Strip away all of the origins story and the writing of famous tracts and you have a simple story of two people desperate to change a system that is inherently corrupt. Although Peck skimps on actually depicting the true misery of the working classes, the fervour of Marx and Engels does become infectious.
The Young Karl Marx should work for people of any perspective as long as they have an open mind. I have neither a Marxist view of politics nor of history, yet I found myself provoked and inspired by the robust intelligence of Raoul Peck’s film. Marx laments that his fellow ideologues fight with needles, asking instead for a sledgehammer. In a world where we are consumed by needle-jousting, perhaps it is time for another sledgehammer or two.