In the mid-1800s, after the Industrial Revolution has created an age of new prosperity and new problems, a 26-year-old writer, researcher, and radical named Karl Marx (August Diehl) embarks, with his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps), on the road to exile. In Paris in 1844, they meet young Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), the well-to-do son of a factory owner whose studies and research has exposed the poor wages and worse conditions of the new English working class who operate looms, printing presses, and other engines of industry that enrich their owners while punishing laborers. The smooth and sophisticated but equally radical Engels brings his research and resources to provide Marx with the missing pieces to the puzzle of his new vision of the world. Together, while battling censorship and police raids, riots and political upheavals, the two men will preside over the birth of the labor movement turning unorganized idealists and dreamers into a united force with a common goal. The ideas they put forward will grow into the most complete philosophical and political transformation of the world since the Renaissance – started, against all expectations, by two brilliant, insolent, and sharp-witted young men whose ideas were embraced by revolutionaries even as they were later corrupted by dictators.
As writer/director Raoul Peck himself puts it, “Before they’d even reached the age of 30, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had undoubtedly started to change the world – for better or worse…” I was so enthralled by Haitian director Raoul Peck’s powerful Oscar-nominated documentary about James Baldwin last year called I Am Not Your Negro that I was thrilled to speak to him about his new film, The Young Karl Marx, very different in scope and style, and yet similar in other ways. I asked him what it was like to be working on those two films at the same time and if he thought that his immersion into the world of James Baldwin informed his interpretation of the events in Karl Marx’s life.
Raoul Peck: Oh yes, absolutely! Baldwin often used Marxist analysis in his own writings, even his notion that whiteness was just a metaphor for power. The relationship between capitalism and racism made me feel like I was working on the same subject during the making of both films — I felt right at home with both.
And yet this film has such a different structure. Did you ever consider using documentary elements to tell Karl Marx’s story?
No, not really. Initially there were people who wanted me to use a kind of mixed form but I realized early on that I wanted to go totally narrative in this film while still staying very true to the actual events. That was very important to me for both films, actually — I wanted to push aside any interpretations and not go through anybody to tell their stories, I went straight to the source. Just as I only use Baldwin’s own words in I Am Not Your Negro and did not permit any talking heads, that’s what I tried to do in this film in the sense that the entire script was built from the actual correspondence between Marx, Engels, Jenny Marx, and Mary Burns.
Their story is so compelling. I was impressed at how the dialogue never seemed like people giving “speeches” as often can happen in films about important thinkers like this.
I really tried to avoid all of the indulgences of the biopic genre. I didn’t create a love story that didn’t happen or invent any characters to help drive the dramatic structure. Every character you see in this film is a real person using their real name. I know some people have said that this is a very “conventional” film after I Am Not Your Negro but I don’t think it’s a conventional approach at all.
It’s remarkable how accessible the film seems, even to those of us who come to it knowing only the broadest strokes about these people.
It took a long time for me and Pascal Bonitzer to write the script because this film is about the evolution of ideas and that is difficult to do in cinema. That was our biggest challenge. Hollywood has unfortunately accustomed us to expect suspense and a narrative structure only through action but in this film the suspense comes from the next idea, the next discussion. We wanted to captivate through language, through opinions and questions. To give the sense that you are following history in the making.
Do you find that audiences in different parts of the world have very different reactions to the film?
The interesting thing for both this and the Baldwin film is that people around the world tend to take these themes and make them their own. I Am Not Your Negro was sold in more than 70 countries and wherever I went, whether it was Sweden or Italy or Brazil, the people there had the same type of problems. Baldwin’s words and Marx’s words apply anywhere, it’s not a matter of what nation you are in, they’re about ideas that are important for any community, especially when you are in these capitalistic societies which is now all over the planet. My hope is that people around the world will feel empowered by these words and want to learn more.
And the focus on young Karl Marx lets us look underneath all the heavy baggage of what the concept of Marx has become. I doubt that the Karl Marx in this film would even recognize how his name has been used around the world.
Oh, absolutely not, he wouldn’t recognize it at all. He even said by the end of his own life, “Please protect me from Marxism, I’m not a Marxist!” But, you know, that’s the fate of many great thinkers, all sorts of people take their philosophy and twist it. I mean, look at what happened in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. I would call that the biggest ideological kidnapping in the history of humankind. To take those ideas that you see in the film and turn them into these monstrous granite statues that came to represent the philosophy in places like the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia — those young people had nothing to do with that.
Just like how people do things in the name of Jesus that have absolutely nothing to do with any of his actual teachings.
Precisely. They use the thoughts for their own power. For me, I wanted to use this film as a kind of “reset.” Let’s look at the origin of what Marx was about and take whatever we can in order to better understand the world we are in.
I was absolutely riveted by the women in the film. Jenny Marx, played so beautifully by Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread), and Engels’ partner, Mary Burns, played with equal verve by Hannah Steele (Wolf Hall). Those women were both so brilliant and important to the work, I’m surprised they aren’t more well known today.
Yes, they are fascinating. Of course, over time, the movement lost many battles including many involving women’s rights. The four of them thought that the movement would happen first in countries like England and Germany, they did not think that Russia was the right place for the development of a revolution because it was so institutionally deadlocked. But these young people played a big role in developing what we know today as the working class, labor unions, and all of the movements that fought for a better world including the equality of women, civil rights, healthcare, paid vacations, and so on.
I loved how the characters constantly switch back and forth between English, German, and French, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. Was that difficult to do?
That’s how they were. If you look at their correspondence you can see in the middle of a letter written in German, one of them would suddenly switch to French and then go to English. These languages were important tools for them. Marx was a correspondent for a New York newspaper for many years, that’s how he made his living. Learning languages was nothing to them. I speak all three languages and I knew I needed actors who spoke all three as well. I did not want to use translations or dubbing, I wanted them to be totally at ease with the three languages. For me, it was also a symbol of the new Europe, and brought home the point that they were not talking about one country, they were taking about what capitalism had brought to the whole world.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels seemed like they had the perfect partnership. I saw one review of the film that made me laugh because they compared them to Lennon and McCartney.
It’s really like one of those very rare moments in history when two incredible minds meet and recognize each other. Engels was smart enough to recognize in Marx the genius that he was and totally put himself at his service — there was never any competition between those two great minds. You know, when Marx got his PhD at the age of 19, his professors said that if you want to meet Hegel, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau in one person, you should meet that young man. He was a type of genius that only comes around once every 200 years or so. An incredible mind that has unfortunately been drowned out during the past 100 years of history. That’s why I wanted to revisit him.
As we all should, separate from the historical baggage of what people think Marxism is. His message could not be more relevant today.
I’ve been listening to those kids in Florida, the survivors of that horrible shooting at the Parkland high school. They totally get it when they say they understand the resistance of this country’s leadership to pass gun control laws while they’re receiving money from the NRA and the gun lobby. These kids know how entwined profits are in everything that happens in a capitalist society, I’m really impressed by them. They know that’s why Trump’s first response that week was to talk about arming teachers with even more guns, and creating more profit. Everything in our culture can be understood if you look at the attention to profit. That’s exactly what Marx and Engels were talking about.