So, the first time we see Marx and Engels meet in The Young Karl Marx, Raoul Peck has to two of them sitting at far ends of this elaborate drawing room. Marx is trying to demand payment for his last two essays from his publisher, Engels is arrived to the man’s house as his patrician guest. The publisher blusters between the two of them trying to keep face with a friend while dismissing his employee. The two seated scholars don’t pay him all that much attention. They’ve only eyes for each other.
Eventually the man is cowed into leaving to get his chequebook. Engels rushes across the room no longer able to contain his excitement, ‘You are the greatest materialist thinker working today.’ Marx looks at him dispassionately with those shrewd eyes of his, ‘If I may speak frankly about your work for a moment.’
‘There is nobody alive who has better captured the condition of the English working class. It is a revelation.’ Their eyes meet and from that moment you know it is true love. There’s a good goof where the publisher walks back into the room with the cheque only to find the two have already exited in their excitement. We cut to a smoky pub, the two are making eyes at each other across a chessboard. Engels is buying the drinks. Both are talking political theory and getting wasted.
In that moment the flick’s sheer joy at the ability to capture this moment, to realise the beginning of this friendship and working partnership, and contextualise it within the weight of history is palpable. All the best moments of the film are like this. Marx and Engels meeting up with the League of the Just to convince its international leadership of the import of a cohesive political framework for the worker’s liberation, a framework that would become the founding basis of the Communist League.
Debates with misguided anarchists, dunking on the stupider members of the bourgeoisie. The film is at its most electric when it has its thoughts in theory. Much like its characters, when the fervour of argumentation rolls upon them and they find something essential in the experience. Unfortunately, the film got more going on than this, it is too committed to its status as a work of biography. I have no doubts that the work is immaculately researched but the spark that is there while charting their political rise is not replicated within the scenes of family drama.
Vicky Krieps and Hannah Steele as Jenny von Westphalen and Mary Burns respectively put in great work and are compelling screen presences but the film don’t got a way of conceptualising these characters outside of the shadow of their respective partners. We are told of their importance and involvement in their work but it remains something nebulous.
Jenny comes from an aristocratic family that she gave up to be with her starving philosopher husband, Mary was a worker fired from Engel’s father’s factory before the two of them started dating. Yet these lives are never reckoned with. We see the toll that their pasts inflict on their partners but never fall into an implicit understanding of how it truly weighed on them. A side effect of the time period perhaps but more care could have been taken. The film certainly wouldn’t be worse for it.
Without this comprehensive view the film finds itself torn between its duties to the two different lives that the man was forced to lead. In a way that very much mirrors the struggles of the man himself. We go from a lighthearted moment when, just prior to his exile from France, he and Engels flee through the streets of Paris from police desperate to check their papers; to his time in Brussels, newly penniless and unreachable being turned down from post office jobs for his poor handwriting.
It’s that same problem I suppose, I don’t want to critics the film for being sad sometimes, I just want it to take a more holistic view of those moments. The film wouldn’t droop so dreadfully were the women as developed as the bad philosophers. For that reason the film is playing best when it’s playing free, you could imagine it as a buddy heist movie. Marx and Engels as George Clooney and Brad Pitt Ocean’s 11ing their way into proliferating revolutionary critical thought across Europe against the whims and attempted suppression of the bourgeois class.
Yeah, I would go for that joint, and this flick is basically a half of it. I’d be down for a well observed Marx family drama in which we explore the everyday triumphs and struggles they endure following their conviction, and we have an imperfect half of that. I’m always gonna be down with Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro was one of my favourite joints of last year. I kinda just want a real great flick about communist principles that I can wholeheartedly recommend to my friends like I could that one about American anti-black racism.
This just ain’t that film.
The Young Karl Marx is currently screening in UK cinemas.