After the critical success of his Oscar-nominated documentaryabout the career and struggles of writer and American civil rights hero James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, Haitian director Raul Peck takes on another iconic political figure in his new feature film The Young Karl Marx.
Centering on the birth of the Communist movement, and the lifelong friendship between Jewish-born theorist Karl Marx (his parents went on to convert to Christianity shortly after he was born) and Communist Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels, the film offers a compelling, thorough and surprisingly detailed account of a friendship which spanned decades.
Fleeing an increasingly hostile anti-socialist environment in his native Germany where he was a prolific author of anti-establishment material, Karl Marx (August Diehl) finds himself exiled in Paris where, accompanied by his wife Jenny (played by Phantom Thread star Vicky Krieps), he soon makes a name for himself as a writer.
Dejected by the lack of interest in his more revolutionary ideas, Marx finds an ally in a young compatriot named Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) whose ideas he finds to be very close to his own. Bonding over similar upbringings and the wish to break away from their bourgeois roots, the two young men hatch a plan for a universal movement which, they hope, will resonate with workers throughout the world and encourage them to overthrow an unjust and cruel feudalist system which only served to benefit the rich.
German actor Diehl offers Marx as righteously angry and at times needlessly antagonistic towards those who don’t agree with his revolutionary sentiments, whilst Stefan Konarske puts in a much more sedate turn as the equally passionate, but far less fiery Engels. Both actors should be commended for their impressive fluency in German, French and English and for their ability to switch from one language to another.
Whilst opting to have their protagonists interact with each other in the variety of languages they would have used in real life might seem like an inspired idea on paper, in reality Peck and co-writer Pascal Bonitzerthis are unable to seamlessly translate this onto the screen, and as a result audiences might feel a little alienated by the use of this particular narrative device.
On the whole The Young Karl Marx succeeds in telling a moving story of friendship and struggle, with a huge amount of tenderness and good-will towards the memory of its subjects and the ideas which went on to influence the world in more than one way.