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Review: Birth of an Era—Raoul Peck's "The Young Karl Marx"

Raoul Peck's biopic is a film about an idea and the fortuitous moment it was born into many hands.
Scout Tafoya
The Young Karl Marx
Among the many pleasures nestled in Joseph Losey’s late triumph Roads to the South (Yves Montand saying the name “Walter Benjamin” is the purest delight) is a scene where father and son communists, Montand and Laurent Malet, play Russian roulette. Montand is a screenwriter whom Malet believes has lost his revolutionary nerve and sold out. Their mother, who linked the firebrands, has died, and they seem to have nothing left binding them. How could a young agitator respect this lapsed whore of a Marxist, selling movies and living vicariously through real activists as he grows old and dies in his cozy estate? How can one be a Marxist and still respect the cinema? Pasolini spent his too-short life investigating this question with every movie he made, never arriving at an answer beyond the mere fact of having done so, thus demonstrating its possibility. Have we need of further proof?
The question was evidently on the mind of the critics at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival who reviewed Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx at its premiere and lamented that its bourgeois form betrayed its socialist subject. How can you make a conventional biopic out of the hero of communism? One might as well ask how a communist like Cy Endfield could make a war film like Zulu. Most easily and rather beautifully. Losey pulled this trick off all his life, though critics always treated him like he was designing furniture with no place to sit. They laughed at his Assassination of Trotsky, which is incredible and slightly revolutionary. The form is poetry itself, always a risk. Peck didn’t reach for revolutionary form; why risk having the subject turn to “dolly shots and close-ups,” as Godard chided critics in 1968 when he wanted to shut down the Cannes Film Festival? Peck made a palatable film that never simplifies the theory that animates it. It isn’t, after all, a film about Karl Marx. Like Spielberg's Lincoln, it’s a film about an idea and the fortuitous moment it was born into many waiting hands.
‘Marxist film’ ought to be a kind of oxymoron, though it’s taken many indelible and incongruous forms. The first film ever made is of nameless people wandering off a train, no one more important than anyone else. You can say that cinema is the Marxist’s art form because it can actually represent ‘the masses’ in the quickest time imaginable, as well as giving the image back to them with equal swiftness. But money gets in the way. Unless the director is paid exactly as much as the grips and actors,  and then it’s given away to audiences, there can be no such thing as an ideal Marxist film. Likely only Guy Debord and folks like him came close, which relied not on an army of actors and technicians but on existing images and his own recorded voice. But I suspect Debord would have appreciated Peck’s approach, because it accurately represents the possession-light lives surrounding Marx and Engels’ ideological symbioses. The appearance of a lobster at dinner is not simply symbolic, though it is that, it is Marx’s version of luxury: he pays off his debts with a loan from Engels, buys flowers for his wife, and to celebrate, lobster. To watch Marx who, having no real money, will truly appreciate its rare texture and taste, sit with the remains of a freshly eaten lobster, is about the closest thing to Debord’s détournement, a hijacking of the narrative by active spectacle, to be found in the film (if one discounts a comedy foot chase with police, but that introduces the way Marx and Engels act, think and move similarly, and so is at least theoretically important). There is no disruption of our understanding of Marx and Engel’s thought processes and relationship. “To minds that truly think,” Marx toasts Engels as they’re in the process of drinking until they puke (the film recognizes that a lot of the work of being a communist is drinking and talking where the violent of the world can’t hear you). That is the pleasure of the film. Watching talk form a concrete idea, that idea become a book, and the book attach itself to a movement unprepared for the new direction.
The film rejects commodity fetishism at every turn (hence the importance of the lobster) but it abounds with sumptuousness all the same. The photography by Kolja Brandt finds glory under grey skies, lighting cavernous homes and bars as if they were the sight of miracles. The costumes by Paule Mangenot are delightful without ever calling attention to themselves. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially as the Marxes, August Diehl and Vicky Krieps. The pair are naturally spellbinding, though they hide their magnetism ever so slightly (behind dirt, steely determination and one beard) to let the ideas be what we remember over their grace notes. The film’s most memorable images are of Marx and Engels collaborating, writing, talking to the small hours of the morning, waking up on the floor in yesterday’s clothes. That’s the meat of writing, of being a poor intellectual. By giving Marx, who has taken on mythic proportions in the century and change since his death, the appearance of an intellectual hellraiser, excitably human, dirty and wired, Peck and Diehl gives him back to us. He has the casual heroic flare of an Orwell hero, dusty, sleep-deprived, eyes bugging with promise. That he still has energy despite his innumerable defeats and arrests is inspiring, and showing him getting up again to fight is reason enough to make the movie. We need those images, and we need them all the more because they are the natural course of his story. The movie doesn’t make a spectacle of Marx’s determination. Rather his refusal to stop, his endless, intoxicating talk of the rights of workers, his learning English by reading Ricardo, is the spectacle. “I escaped utter boredom,” says Jenny to Engels, halfway through his commending her decision to marry down instead of live as an aristocrat. I felt the same way watching the movie for a second time.
The Young Karl Marx’s focus is on precious few people and incidents and the style in which it unfolds has already proved polarizing. Some find it too simple. Peck has apparently given himself the dictate found in the new introduction Marx and Engels wrote to the 1872 German reprint of the Manifesto: “But then, the Manifesto has become a historical document which we have no longer any right to alter.” Peck could easily have turned Marx into spectacle, but what better gift than a romantic treatment of Marxism, the kind that only the cinema can provide? He’s made Marx into a figure liberal audiences will recognize from the dozens of torturous biopics they give money and prizes too every year. That’s a sly victory in and of itself. Make a film that behaves, in its structure, like a conventional story of an underdog inventor or movie-autistic genius. Give Marx back to the people, as it were. Try to make an end run around the last twenty years of dumbing down the popular film. Here’s a film in the shape of something awful (The Imitation Game or The Iron Lady) that co-opts the form and plants a dozen ideas about communism, something most audiences may misunderstand, some willfully. His form is like the lobster, proof that Peck, like his hero, is unafraid of the trappings of bourgeois society, knowing one can mingle with them and not lose oneself. I doubt it will work, but this was beyond a noble effort. It’s revolutionary.


ReviewsRaoul Peck
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