Starring August Diehl. In English, French, and German, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
“You’re the greatest materialist thinker of our times,” a young Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) exclaims to Karl Marx (Inglourious Basterds’ August Diehl) at their first meeting. The latter doesn’t disagree. Still, Marx’s fellow German traveller, in revolution-ripe 1843, can stand up to the future icon’s ego, as we see in this intermittently engaging stroll down the long road to their joint publication of The Communist Manifesto.
If The Young Karl Marx helps reconstruct Engels’s role in the upheavals to follow, it also revisits the place of women in that unruly moment. It elevates Jenny Marx (Phantom Thread costar Vicky Krieps), who gave up Prussian aristocracy to marry the son of a converted Jew, from mere helpmate to active participant, especially regarding Karl’s dodgy networking skills. Engels was the offspring of a wealthy merchant with several English factories—which is why Marx (and his gravesite) ended up in London—and Freddy’s impoverished Irish mate, Mary Burns (Wolf Hall’s Hannah Steele), proves to be a working-class rabble-rouser in her own right.
We follow these multilingual agitators across Europe, touching down in France and Belgium, with Germany subbing for England. There are some remarkable Industrial Revolution sites, particularly when the film gets to a Manchester textile factory, giving dialectical materialism a literal meaning, as child labour helps spew out reams of coloured fabric. Some now-distant figures of intellectual foment spring to life, in the form of Olivier Gourmet as French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (self-satisfied) and Alexander Scheer as German firebrand Wilhelm Weitling (a grandstander). But director Raoul Peck is somewhat overwhelmed by the challenge of enlivening both history and the writerly process—of dramatizing footnotes, as it were.
Most intriguing, perhaps, is the foreshadowing of violence built into Marx’s vision of moral purity. The new film is both related to and a slight letdown after Peck’s last movie, I Am Not Your Negro, which elevated revolution to poetry, thanks to fantastic footage of subject James Baldwin. Here, a bland orchestral score underlines a kind of candlelit lifelessness, suddenly awakened in the end credits, which find an electric Bob Dylan singing along with a montage of times that kept a-changing.