“The Young Karl Marx”: A revolutionary specter haunts your local movie theatre
The Marx and Engels families on the eve of writing The Communist Manifesto.

Watch out! A specter is returning to haunt the capitalist world! It’s Karl Marx! In the year of his 200th birthday we get to witness the timely release of a remarkable film about one of history’s foremost and complex thinkers, depicting his early activist life leading up to the creation of one of the world’s most iconic political publications, The Communist Manifesto.

Haitian director Raoul Peck, coming off his success with the Oscar-nominated documentary on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, now has another stunning debut to his credit—“debut” meaning the first time Karl Marx is seen as a character in a (more-or-less) English-language film in the capitalist world! The Young Karl Marx features French, German and English languages interacting seamlessly with indispensable subtitles that open a world of wondrous discovery of Marx’s early years.

This is the film I’ve been waiting for most of my life and it didn’t disappoint for a second. Many of the historical figures Marxists have gotten to know about only in print, are finally in the flesh, with thoughts and feelings fleshed out in humanistic portrayals. For those who have forgotten that there are alternatives to the Democratic and Republican parties will be enlightened and inspired to witness The Communist Manifesto in-the-making, involving exciting ideological debates during the politically fertile decade of the 1840s. Marx and Engels, with their youthful revolutionary zeal, crafted a political work of art that defined the course of history. Marx is arguably the world’s most prominent philosopher, economist, historian, political theorist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist who ever lived, and the Manifesto was his first “best seller.”

Opening credits proclaim, “In England, the industrial revolution transforms the world’s order and creates the new proletarian class. Workers’ organizations are founded based on a ‘communist’ utopia in which all men are brothers. Two young Germans will disrupt this notion, thus transforming the struggle…and the future of the world.”

The opening scene appears as almost in a fog as desperately poor peasants gather deadwood in a silent forest, Military horsemen suddenly charge at the group slaying them to the last victim.

This unsettling symbolic vision sets the groundwork for the rest of Marx’s work, the introduction of “class struggle.” The prophetic voiceover during the opening massacre scene reads:

“To gather green wood, one must rip it violently from the living tree. Yet gathering dead wood removes nothing from the property. Only what is already separated is removed from the property. Despite this essential difference, you call both acts theft and punish them as such. Montesquieu names two kinds of corruption: One when the people do not observe the laws. The other when the laws corrupt them. You have erased the difference between theft and gathering. But you are wrong to believe it is in your interest. The people see the punishment, but not the crime. And, as they do not see a crime…when they are punished, you should fear them, for they will take revenge.”

Peck chose to show Marx as a human being with all his natural flaws. He was unfaithful, unhealthy and underpaid. He was often extremely critical of other opinions and challenged most of the contemporary intellectuals, anarchists, socialists and Young Hegelians for example, but luckily bonded with his literary partner for life, Frederick Engels, who ended up funding most of the remainder of Marx’s career as a writer. Many characters are brought to life in this jubilant retelling of political history—Proudhon, Bakunin, Weitling, Marx’s wife Jenny, Engels’ companion Mary, The League of the Just, French Left Radicals, and many more we know only from books.

We find that middle class Marx married up to aristocracy, while son of an industrial capitalist Engels partnered down to the working class. But the film shows the depth of love they had for each other, often demonstrated in tender interactions. They all embraced the struggle of the working class and fought for a just and peaceful world. Workers are humanized while capitalists are shown for the money they worshipped.

The film follows Marx through his many run-ins with the police, being kicked out of one country to the next, mostly as a result of his radical writings, starting with his work at the Rheinische Zeitung in Germany. While exiled in Paris in August of 1844, he meets Frederick Engels (Stefan Konarske); there they spend 10 glorious productive days together and cement their lifetime relationship. Engels’ joyous letter to Marx on his return back to Germany is featured in the film. We get to see revolutionary Marx responding with one of his famous quotes, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways—the point however is to change it.”

Peck goes to extra lengths to cast actors who look uncannily like the real characters. Keep in mind, despite the commonly accepted image of bushy bearded overweight Marx, he was once young, and the magnetic August Diehl captures the essence of this young intelligent revolutionary as seen in pictures of him in his youth.

The story brings alive the historical interchange between two giants of philosophy—Marx and French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon presented his new booklet, The Philosophy of Poverty, to Marx, who disagreed with its approach and wrote a full length rebuttal entitled The Poverty of Philosophy.” This unexpected critique is marked by many as the beginning of animosity between the two tendencies of anarchism and communism.

In another scene depicting one of Marx’s feisty ideological sparring matches, he challenges the League of the Just for their altruistic slogan “All Men are Brothers,” while urging a better understanding of the concept of class struggle and revolutionary communism, resulting in the eventual renaming of the group to The Communist League.

The film ends ironically with the capitalist printing presses rolling out the pages of Marx and Engels’ world-altering book. Over the pictures, the closing text reads:

“The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. The 1848 revolution broke out one month later. Class confrontation in Western Europe overthrew the old regimes. The international workers’ movements arose from these ruins. The Communist Manifesto is being translated and reprinted to this day. Exiled in England, supported by Jenny and Friedrich, Marx would keep writing his key work Capital until his death. An open, immeasurable work, unfinished because the very object of its critique is in perpetual motion.”

Hopefully this is a film that will resonate and inspire young activists starving from a lack of viable revolutionary alternatives. This impressive re-creation of a time passed is not severed from the present day. The struggle still continues, but with different players. Peck always works in the present day, and Marx’s writings support the understanding that the past is intimately connected both to the present and the future. In the closing credits, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is accompanied by a breathtaking montage of select photos of political movements and figures influenced by the Manifesto in the 170 years since its publication.

[Eric A. Gordon’s and Ed Rampell’s reviews of this seminal film also appear in People’s World.]

The Young Karl Marx (Le jeune Karl Marx)
Directed by Raoul Peck
Screenplay by Pascal Bonitzer and Raoul Peck
2017, 118 minutes
Opens in New York and Los Angeles February 23


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.