Wednesday 16th May 2018
In the The Young Karl Marx August Diehl smirks a lot. He displays a smug smile when he meets his future comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels. It is there again when he takes on the apocalyptic- and evangelically-sounding rabble-rouser Wilhelm Weitling. And we come across Marx’s scornful expression again when he confronts a rich mill owner, friend of Engels’ father, on child exploitation. That such a dialogue-rich movie contains such strongly-conveyed facial messages speaks volumes about the quality of the direction, script and performances.
Whereas in I am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated, James Baldwin-inspired documentary, the film-maker uses the late civil rights movement writer’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House to put contemporary US society in the dock, in the The Young Karl Marx, he injects both Marx and Engels with a dose of much-needed humanity. The script suits Diehl’s bruising Marx and Konarske’s arrogant Engels, both of whom have plenty of scores to settle. Rounding up the leading roles are two actresses who rise up to the challenge posed to them even if their contribution is not as evident as the men’s. On one side we have Vicky Krieps, who was last seen poisoning Daniel Day Lewis (admittedly, with his consent in the end) in Phantom Thread, in the role of Jenny Marx. Although here the Luxembourg-born actress seems to play second fiddle, there’s still fierceness in her performance as a staunch defender of her husband’s ideas. On the other side we have Hannah Steele, she of Wolf Hall fame, as Mary Burns, Engels’ lifelong partner and a working-class, Irish woman who adopts both Marx and Engels’ ideas as her own.
The elephant in the room is the theory both thinkers come up with. Whilst Engels acquires first-hand knowledge of the conditions of the English working-class (chiefly with Mary’s help), Marx is busy polishing up his ideas on the inner workings of capitalism. Their findings are valid but their solutions controversial, and sadly history has not been kind to these men’s communist- or socialist-driven agenda (it is always amusing to find a group of western intellectuals locked in a verbal brawl over which system is the better antidote to modern-day capitalism).
In believing that the way to accelerate the demise of capitalism and usher in a new equalitarian society was by transferring power from the ruling elite to the working class, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels created unintentionally a virtuous oppressed Other. This oppressed Other was cast in an angelic and almost-perfect light. Nuance went out of the window, along with the power of the individual.
To be clear: the underage children slaving away in coal mines were real, the poor families with barely anything to eat and in constant fear of eviction were real and the workers deprived of their own rights and voice were real. It is just that the solution to their plight was not and should never have been Lenin, Stalin, Mao or Fidel. When these leaders introduced their own version of socialism, the last thing on their minds was that oppressed Other. The irony was that they used the nuance-free image created by the followers of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and manipulated it for their own power-grabbing purposes. This was not Marx or Engels’ fault, any more than the writer(s) who cobbled together those first passages of the Old Testament are to blame for the current situation with abortion in Ireland. Socialist dictatorships’ first step when they come to power is to wipe away any kind of joyful expression that does not match the incoming government’s revolutionary zeal. And if that includes self-satisfying, smug smirking, so be it.