Sydney Film Festival Review: The Young Karl Marx (France, 2017) is a safe bio-pic about the famous philosopher & socialist

The Young Karl Marx (Le jeune Karl Marx) is a bio-pic that feels authentic because it captures the period well in a visual sense. But you also get the feeling that it is only telling a part of the story and not least because it is all about Karl Marx’s youth. This dramatic film is ultimately a nicely-rendered but dry look at the famous revolutionary, which it paints in an overwhelmingly positive light.

This film is directed by Raoul Peck (who also has I Am Not Your Negro screening at Sydney Film Festival). It begins by giving a little context to the period but it helps if the audience has some knowledge of the subject matter. The year is 1844 and Karl Marx (August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds)) is living in exile with his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) in Paris. Marx previously scrapped together a meagre living publishing articles in the radical newspaper, Rheinische Zeitung. This newspaper ceased publication when it was censored in 1843.

When Marx meets a young industrialist’s son it proves to be the start of a fruitful working relationship and a lifelong friendship. Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) was born into privilege. On paper you would think that he and Marx were far too different to get along. But Engels had begun to take notice of the plight of the proletariat and would pen, The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Engels was also romantically involved with a fiery and outspoken Irish woman named Mary Burns (Hannah Steele). These partnerships would prove to be quite meaningful and important ones because Engels and Marx’s partners would also be supportive and integral players in the stories of these famous men. (Marx’s wife Jenny had actually turned her back on an aristocratic life in order to live with this quote “Socialist, atheist Jew”).

This film focuses on the period that Engels and Marx collaborated together and traded ideas which would form the basis of the book, The Communist Manifesto. The two would also share their philosophies and have verbal sparring matches with other revolutionary thinkers of the time including French anarchist Pierre Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet). Over time Marx and Engels will play a part in the transformation of the League of the Just and see it become the Communist League.

This film is a hagiography because it treads the straight and narrow and tends to present Marx as a saint and inspiration. It also fails to cover and address the negative aspects of his history. This film is heavily laden with dialogue and at times this makes for a rather dull rendering. It’s a shame because the story is lacking in conflict and you would think that such a turbulent period and famous man would actually be a bit more interesting to watch.

The Young Karl Marx is a film about an important chapter in history where revolutions took place in Europe, which saw monarchs and imperial powers being overthrown. While this film looks and feels authentic (the script is tri-lingual and in a visual sense fits the period to a tee) it is also a rather staid look at the birth of some radical ideologies and what become a lifelong friendship. It is something that is ultimately pleasant but slow-burning to watch so don’t expect it to rock the boat like its namesake did.


The Young Karl Marx screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival, where it was reviewed.


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