You may wonder, as The Young Karl Marx unfolds, just why the filmmakers would build to the drafting of the work that would break the old world pretty much the same way the creators of a life-of-the-pop-musician biopic build to the composition of their subject’s signature single. Here, handsome Marx (August Diehl) and handsome Engels (Stefan Konarske) argue handsomely on a gray Belgian beach. Both are broke and tired. Marx insists he can’t stir himself to take on some project to which he and Engels have committed themselves. The rules of payoff-oriented screenwriting dictate that we can’t be told just yet what work this is. “We’re winning!” Engels exhorts him. “Rise up! Wake up!”
Marx demurs that he is tired — so very tired.
“You know as I do that, all this work — books, articles, talks — will have been to no avail if we don’t write a simple book that comprehensively sums it up,” Engels says. He mentions that their earlier collaborations have not done enough. Then he declares, “We need a communist manifesto!”
And with that, of course, Marx’s fire is kindled, and we’re treated to a crisp montage sequence of creators creating: pens and script, sheaves of paper, Marx and Engels and their wives and lovers (Hannah Steele and Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps) reading aloud, glowing with the same certainty Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash did when he finally got down “I Walk the Line.”
The Young Karl Marx, directed by Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro), is about writing the hits. Its story concerns the development of communist theory, but in its construction it harks back to Eli Whitney’s theory of interchangeable parts. Here’s an assemblage of scenes you’ve seen (impassioned young people on fire with the truth!), conflicts that come off the rack (the factory-owning father does not approve of his son’s radicalism!), character arcs that bend just as you would expect them to (like all rom-com couples and buddy cops, Marx and Engels at first sight detest each other!).
That speech of Engels’ offers a clue to Peck’s thinking: a simple film that comprehensively sums it up. He’s pitched The Young Karl Marx not at Marxists but at some phantom audience of guileless but revolution-curious moviegoers, viewers eager to entertain a fire-breathing assault on capital and property but also wholly uncritical of the cornball manipulations of prestigious period-dress, let-us-celebrate-great-men Hollywood-style moviemaking. Our heroes here get chased through the streets of Paris by police in a sequence cut and scored as if they’re The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. When one confronts a man of means about the horrific excesses of capitalism, the wealthy dope responds, “You know very well that without child labor we’d price ourselves out of the market,” a line too bald for a Charles Dickens villain.
The leads’ inner lives are depicted via the most hoary of means, including the nightmare from which one awakes by sitting bolt upright and panting. And their exterior circumstances are sketched just as laboriously, with characters often announcing, for our benefit, all that they’ve lately been up to. Sometimes it’s unintentionally comic, as when Engels, asked by Marx if he’s in a romantic relationship, dismisses the question with a Facebook-y shrug: “Complicated,” he says. And as God is my witness, another montage sequence — this one of creators laboring to create — finds Engels crumpling up unsatisfactory pages and tossing them into his own top hat.
There’s something dazzling in the audacity of applying the most conventional and conservative techniques to the portrayal of radical thinkers and thoughts. That frisson keeps the movie interesting without quite jolting it to life. Peck is more activist than aesthete, and his aim seems to be to start a popular reconsideration of Marx, a decoupling of his work from the terrors perpetuated by the communist regimes of the 20th century — a decoupling that long ago occurred in the academy. His film might be more persuasive if it were not so personality-driven, if its primary concern, moment to moment, was with the class struggle itself rather than how dashingly romantic it might be to be young Karl Marx. At the climax, when our rakish dreamers bash out their greatest hit, we see footage of the workers they have met in the film posing in profile, staring bluntly at the camera. The faces are striking, but we know nothing about these people – we’ve only caught a glimpse of them in crowd scenes. The proletariat are extras, their factories and workhouses too vague to resonate.
Still, as demonstrated with his extraordinary James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Peck understands rhetoric and its power. The speeches here rouse, the truths still demand airing, and for all the obviousness of its scripting and staging, there’s an urgency to Peck’s depiction of the struggle between young people demanding revolutionary action and a leftist establishment insisting upon reasonableness and compromise. His actors fare best when embodying Marx's and Engels’ public selves, when seeking to persuade, when diagnosing out loud — sometimes competitively — the rottenness at their society’s core. Also convincing: the period look, all cobblestones and alleyways and stringy black ties. But that’s The Young Karl Marx all over — good at exteriors but not what’s inside.