Raoul Peck’s new film, The Young Karl Marx, is finally out in Italy on Thursday. This little debut will surely intrigue the Italian working class. But what can a left-wing viewer who still isn’t familiar with Marx expect from a movie? Every biographer of the genius of Trier had a tough time: every way of presenting his life is inevitably also a different way of understanding the connection between his private life, his political action and his theoretical work.
As the plot normally dominates over the scenes, a film in old costumes always runs the risk of prioritizing fiction, and of falling into becoming a bourgeois operetta — color aside. The risk is heightened by the actual life of the founder of scientific socialism, who was rich in all kinds of adventure, especially in his youth.
In the beginning of the film, the Rheinische Zeitung journalist is already married with Jenny von Westphalen, the aristocrat who rebelled against her own social class to marry the son of a converted Jew. Their story does not move much forward. The film then tells the story of the encounter with Engels in Paris.
The two already admire each other a lot. They just need to tell each other. As for the rest, Peck and screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer (who worked at Cahiers and Époque Mao, and is a director himself) tried to avoid biographies’ classic pattern: rise, fall, redemption. The future founder of the Internationalist does go through a few economic and political downturns. He is always on the verge of going hungry, looking for money for some bread, sought by the police and forced to exile. But the stability of his poverty and uncertainty are also a way of making the film less Dickensian in its narrative and preserve more room for theoretical aspects.
But just how do you film theory? Peck refused to create a heavy film. He sought to squeeze all of Marx’s thought into a single concept: the idea of conflict. The film starts with a group of lower working class people collecting wood, mowed down by charging horse-mounted police. One of Marx’s ideas — from a famous Rheinische Zeitung article criticizing the new law — resounds: “One seeks to detach from property something that is already detached from it… Indeed, you own the tree, but the tree does not own the branches anymore.”
Peck chooses to make the young Karl Marx start in 1842, when he’s about 24. While young, he is also combative and inflexible, particularly with his friends. Some of them, like Proudhon, were already beloved in working class environments. Marx’s fierceness in getting rid of his opponents is well-documented. Solid scientific theory brought Marx closer and closer to the working class movement, and there was no room for the universalist moralism of other socialist of his time. In Peck’s film, this practical and theoretical aspect integrates with the character. And it all makes sense in light of the friendship with Engels, which very soon becomes a political and intellectual symbiosis.
The film ends with two scenes that sort of mirror each other: in one, Engels imposes the Marxist line in the League of the Just, founding the league of communists with Marx following in the background; in the other, four people sit around a table drafting the Manifesto – Marx in the centre, and three in the shadows: Engels, Jenny and Mary, the Irish worker Engels lived with until her death.
This effort to adjust the rules of biography films to a practical and theoretical need makes the film even more remarkable.
It seeks to present all of Marx: the genius, the man, his thought, his limits — and the special relationship with Jenny and with Engels. But the outcome is a film that chooses the least possible of options: it manages to avoid being crushed under the weight of potentially endless material, but pays the price of taming the material’s power. If Marx’s essence is the fight, The Young Karl Marx gives itself only one bit of audacity, late into the movie and not particularly successful: a final slideshow with Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” playing in the background, in which the Manifesto’s words light the spark of the 20th century.