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'The Young Karl Marx' chronicles the early life of the philosopher

Trying to encompass a vast swath of historical upheaval in the story of Marx and Friedrich Engels may well be an impossible task. Still, shouldn’t the film’s style be a bit more in tune with the incendiariness of its subject?

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“The Young Karl Marx,” to my knowledge, is one of very few projects about the coauthor of the “The Communist Manifesto.” Young or old, Marx isn’t exactly great movie material, at least not as he is presented here. Raoul Peck’s movie takes in Marx’s life from 1843, when, in his mid-20s, he is exiled from Prussia and goes to Paris, and then moves on to Brussels and London, culminating five years later in the publication of the “Manifesto.” Given the provocative and somewhat chaotic stylistics of Peck’s highly acclaimed James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” “The Young Karl Marx” disappointingly resembles for the most part a conventional biopic. It has little depth, either political or psychological.

Marx (August Diehl) is presented from the get-go as a standard-issue firebrand. He proudly gets himself, and his fellow radical writers, arrested, declaiming as he is hustled into the police van that jail time will do everybody a world of good. I am certainly not advocating a kinder, gentler portrayal of Marx, but he comes across here as such an insufferable hothead that I began to sympathize with all the scurvy capitalists he is constantly battling. If, as the truism goes, all politics is personal, then Marx’s personality, as depicted in this movie, did neither himself nor his cause any favors. 

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Peck and his co-screenwriter, Pascal Bonitzer, airbrush out allegations that Marx had a messy personal life. He is, for example, unerringly faithful to his dutiful upper-class wife, Jenny Von Westphalen (Vicky Krieps, memorable in “Phantom Thread”). Young Marx saves his passions for the political stage. He discovers his counterpart in Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), the son of a German mill owner with a mill in Manchester, England. Engels is almost equally annoyingly self-righteous. Although we are meant to regard his rebellion against his father as a courageous stand against inhumane factory conditions, it comes across as more like an Oedipal snit. In contrast to Marx’s marital arrangement, Engels becomes involved with an outspoken working-class woman, Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), who in the film was canned from his father’s mill. Take that, old man!

The pairing of Marx and Engels kept reminding me of something I couldn’t quite place. Then I had an aha moment when I read in the film’s production notes that the twosome resembles “a working pair of friends not unlike, say, Lennon and Mc-
Cartney.” Exactly. And unfortunately. I realize that trying to encompass in this dynamic duo a vast swath of historical upheaval may well be an impossible task. Still, shouldn’t the film’s style be a bit more in tune with the incendiariness of its subject? And shouldn’t there be a tad more irony in how the so-called idealism of these firebrands resulted in the communism espoused by two of the greatest butchers in history, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong? Clearly the movie’s position is that those dictators dishonored a noble philosophy – a dubious proposition at best. 

Peck chooses to close out the film with a photo montage, backed by Bob Dylan singing “Like a Rolling Stone,” showcasing everybody and everything from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela, along with Vietnam, Wall Street, the Berlin Wall, and a whole lot more. Watching it is like being tossed into an agitprop blender. Grade: C (This movie is not rated.)