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The Young Karl Marx/Le jeune Karl Marx/Der junge Karl Marx, France, Belgium, Germany (2017)

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2018

A must for genuine communists and recommended for anyone who is a fan of Karl Marx: the 200th anniversary of his birthday falls this month, May 5th 1818. 200 years on his ‘spectre’ still haunts the European [and now the world] bourgeoisie. The newly released film by Raoul Peck is centred on the friendship and collaboration between Marx and Friedrich Engel, the two intellectual giants of the modern era. Note, the play ‘Young Marx’ apparently commences where this dramatisation leaves off. The film covers the period from 1841 to 1848 when these youthful rebels were finding their feet and their intellectual ground. We follow Marx from Germany to Paris, to Brussels to London. We see and hear his wife Jenny and watch as he develops a relationship with Engels, already in the throes of an affair with Mary Burns.

Over this period Marx was writing for ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ (‘Rhineland News’); ‘Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher’ (‘German-French Annals’); ‘Vorwärts!’ (‘Forward!’), the last for the League of the Just. Engels had already published his famous ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844’. Marx and Engels jointly published ‘The Holy Family’ (1845). Marx followed up with ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ (1847). Then early in 1848 he and Engels wrote for The Communist League [previously The League of the Just] ‘The Communist Manifesto’. This was published in February 1848 as a wave of proletarian revolutions swept across Europe. At this point the modern Communist movement was born and Marx and Engels continued their political activities whilst developing the analysis of Capitalism, an analysis that is as accurate today as it was when ‘Das Kapital’ (Volume 1) was first published in 1867.

Marx and Engels dominate the film as do their political discussions. We do see both Jenny and Mary involved in political action and commenting on the political debates. A number of other famous activists and theorists of the period also appear in the film. We have Michael Bakunin briefly. More frequently we see and hear Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Among the people debated with and criticised by Marx is Wilhelm Weitling.

Only Marx and Engels are presented as rounded characters. But they and the supporting cast portray these revolutionaries in a convincing manner as they also do with their political debates and arguments. It is the strength of the acting that makes the film work.

In fact it is a fairly conventional treatment, an example of the modern film biopic which tends to dramatise a character through one aspect of their life and work. Essentially this film charts the friendship and the way that it leads up to the seminal manifesto. The narrative is linear; carefully structured to include action and drama. The basic plot, though using fictional elements, is broadly historically accurate. Where it less typical is in the amount of time that it allows for political statements and debates. Visually it is similar to many other costume dramas.

The film’s running time is 118 minutes. A more daring length, such as in Peter Watkins La Commune (Paris 1871) (2000) which runs for 345 minutes., would enable a fuller treatment of the politics. Whilst an audience will get a sense of the radical ideas and analysis what actually constitutes the contribution of Marx and Engels in this period will only be clear to people familiar with the written works. When we reach ‘The Communist Manifesto’ we hear the opening paragraphs but not the equally famous ending. The complete Manifesto would have been a better choice. Perhaps a more radical film-maker [Jean-Luc Godard?] might have essayed this.

A more serious omission in some ways is the absence of the voice of the proletariat. The film opens with a fine sequence as we watch rural proletarians hunted down as they attempt to gather kindling: and a commentative voice explains the relevance of the different meanings of theft to this situation When we reach the Manifesto there is an evening sequence as Marx, Engels, Jenny and Mary read the opening of the almost complete Manifesto. Then in a montage of stills we see groups of silent proletarians offering a direct gaze to the audience and the bourgeoisie. But their voice is mainly absent. There are some excellent scenes of of factory exploitation; street meetings; and a Communist League meeting where proletarians are present. But they are only supporting where as in the work of Marx and Engels they are both the object and the subject. The Manifesto would make more sense if the proletarian impact on Marx and Engels was made clear. The film does though make clear that these two are not just isolated intellectuals but are involved in practical political action, as are both Jenny and Mary.

Within the limits of the genre the production is well done. The design, editing and use of music is rather conventional but works well. The cinematography is generally well done. However, it does use the modern technique of filming characters standing before or beside windows. This reduces the clarity in the image of the character/s, and I suspect digital formats emphasise this. The DCP I saw was generally good but the contrast was lower than it might have been on 35mm. I think the film was probably shot in a digital format. The British version is in German, French and English with appropriate sub-titles. It uses both colour and black and white in a ratio of 2.35:1.

I enjoyed the film and I was genuinely moved at times. But after the sequence constructed around ‘The Communist Manifesto’ there are two end titles pointing forward to ‘Das Kapital’. Apparently , in an effort to emphasise the continuing relevance of the Manifesto there follows a second montage of well-known events and figures in the succeeding decades. These are not all well-chosen; several of the figures would have been roundly attacked by Marx and Engels if they were still around. Better would have been a montage illustrating the final and ringing declaration of the Manifesto, the working classes still have ‘nothing to lose but their chains!

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One Response to “The Young Karl Marx/Le jeune Karl Marx/Der junge Karl Marx, France, Belgium, Germany (2017)”

  1. […] The Young Karl Marx/Le jeune Karl Marx/Der junge Karl Marx, France, Belgium, Germany (2017) […]

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