Karl Marx is barfing in the street, but Friedrich Engels—cool as a German pastry under his blonde haircut and expensive hat—is fine. Both are young, in their early to mid-twenties. It is 1843, five years before the popular revolutions that would sweep across Europe. In the opening scene, a gang of poor people are shown gathering wood in a forest. Hooves drum far away, then closer. The goons of evil landowners have come to club the poor for stealing. This is what young Karl and Friedrich have been passionately discussing over drinks, and by the end of the movie they will have ground out those famous manifesto words: “A specter is haunting Europe,” and so on. But for now Marx is too drunk.
The new biopic The Young Karl Marx is the work of Raoul Peck, former Haitian minister for culture and maker of such first-rate pictures as the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro and Lumumba, a fictionalized portrait of the Congolese prime minister. The premise of The Young Karl Marx is very promising. Marx’s influence is felt in our world in two chief ways. There’s the historical Marx, whose philosophical interventions reconfigured political thought forever. Then there is contemporary Marxism as a popular affiliation. Perhaps more than at any other moment since the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Marxist” is how young people in America are identifying themselves.
Communism has been made taboo by its association with the mass violence of the twentieth century. But socialism in America is blooming, bolstered by the Great Recession, Bernie Sanders’s presidential run, and the obvious urgency of the Trump problem. The Democratic Socialists of America run an “Introduction to Marxism” class as part of their “On-Line Virtual ‘Socialist School’ Course.”
It is very likely in 2018 that there are lots of young people who are sliding towards Marxism in their politics, but who may not have not faced off with The Eighteenth Brumaire or other critical Marxist texts. For those people, Peck made this film. (“The idea was to make a film for today’s young people,” he told New York magazine.) The years it spans, from 1843 to the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848, are crucial, covering the period in Marx’s development in which he added his reading of English history and French political economy to his background in Hegelian dialectics. In the movie, we can tell Marx is reading David Ricardo because he says, “Labor was the first price” out loud in the library at a rude volume. His great work Capital, which remained unfinished at his death in 1883, represents a unification of those three fields.
The Karl Marx of Peck’s film is, in a bizarre bit of casting, played by the German actor August Diehl. You may remember Diehl as an extremely blue-eyed and anemic-looking Nazi from Inglourious Basterds. Here he is clad in dark wig and brown contact lenses. He begins the movie as a stranger to Engels, played by Stefan Donarske. Marx is broke and bitter (“I’m sick of all you Young Hegelians”). Engels is a rich kid whose father owns the very factory that he has been studying. They are wary of one another at first, but then confess their love of each other’s writing in the parlour of the publisher Arnold Ruge.
Thus begins an intense friendship between the two, as they knock back endless tiny drinks over a game of chess. They run from the cops together. They’re mean to Karl Grün together. It’s more buddy movie than political philosophy. Then, after Marx bounces around Brussels for a bit after being expelled from France, they end up in England to rebrand the League of the Just as the Communist League. Marx is tired and penniless, but on a dramatic beach Engels gives him a pep talk and thus, out of the fires of friendship, The Communist Manifesto is apparently born.
The friendship between Marx and Engels is the center of the movie, although the marriages of each, to Jenny von Westphalen and Mary Burns, respectively, also take up a lot of space. Jenny is a wan but politically engaged partner to Marx, insisting that he go to England to fulfill his destiny. She’ll be fine with the kids, sitting in Brussels with no money. Burns, an Irish factory worker, is played with a very schlocky sensibility by Hannah Steele. She does lots of cheering from the sidelines, winking happily to Engels as he takes the podium at a workers’ meeting.
Among the movie’s charms are Diehl’s cheerful and contact-lensed face, and the pleasant mishmash of French, German, and English that the cast speak. But the movie is lodged in a very strange place with respect to genre. The emphasis on personal relationships and witty-ish dialogue renders The Young Karl Marx more like a British television period drama than a stirring historical epic. The movie closes out with a montage of revolutionary activity in the centuries to come, including burning $100 bills. But none of that urgency makes it in the 1840s. We care much more about Marx’s inability to feed his kids than we do about his writing. We get nothing really affecting or complicated about the workers’ lives, only a stirring speech from Mary Burns about how somebody she knew lost some fingers in an accident.
The political content of the movie is nowhere near sophisticated enough to maintain its interest as a story about human beings. Showing Marx bargaining over the price of a cheap cigar tells us nothing about his understanding of political economy, just that he didn’t have much cash in his pocket. There’s a running gag about how Marx and Engels’s 1845 book The Holy Family was originally supposed to be called Critique of Critical Criticism, or Kritik der kritischen Kritik. This is just about funny to earn a laugh once. But unless you already know the book, you don’t care much about it. And if you know, you have laughed at the title already, and laughing at the same thing twice isn’t always worth the $15 price of a movie ticket.
Throughout the movie, Peck pitches the political content of his biopic at just about precisely the wrong level. You have to know enough about Marx’s writings to invest in the sentimental buddy flick that’s passing before your eyes. But if you don’t bring that knowledge to the cinema in your pocket, you will neither care nor learn.
I went to an afternoon screening in a Manhattan repertory theatre packed with older New York leftists complaining about how tired a recent labor march had left them. As they creaked into their seats, settling down for a very specialized sort of treat, I thought about seeing Marx’s grave in London as a kid, how big and stern and magical he seemed then. But there were audible yawns as The Young Karl Marx plodded through its two hour run-time, my own among them. For these people who had come to learn about the details of Marx’s life before he became the man who shaped theirs, limp conversations about “exploitation” just didn’t cut it. With the sensibility of a very boring Downton Abbey and a political consciousness to match, The Young Karl Marx is an insipid disaster.