How to Make Karl Marx Sexy

The philosophy of economics doesn’t make for a good movie. It gets easier if you drop the philosophy and the economics.

The Young Karl Marx. (Frederic Batier/Agat Film/Velvet Film)
The Young Karl Marx. (Frederic Batier/Agat Film/Velvet Film)

The biography of an intellectual should not be promising material for a film. If thinkers do their jobs correctly, their lives should be less interesting than their work, and their works should be too complex for a movie to explain. A director might kill a few minutes with a montage of the hero rifling through papers at a desk, sitting up abruptly once inspiration strikes, and then frantically scribbling notes. But those notes eventually lead to a book, and the more thoughtful a book’s arguments, the more difficult they are to convey onscreen.

The new film The Young Karl Marx dodges this problem by avoiding the years its subject devoted to his biggest book, Capital. It focuses instead on the years before Marx had developed anything like “Marxism.” His genius was apparent to his colleagues, and he had already written some of his most important work. But he was also a failed academic struggling to avoid becoming a failed journalist.

What sustained him in this period — aside from prodigious self-confidence — was his faith in the revolution he believed must come. That faith provides the animating spirit of a film less concerned with its subject’s ideas than with conveying, in appropriately stylized fashion, the experience of a radical life.

Director and co-screenwriter Raoul Peck replaces the standard images of Marx — black-and-white photos of a figure who seems more beard than man, a Santa Claus for the revolutionary set — with a pleasingly hirsute 20-something who would not seem out of place fielding questions at the Genius Bar. This Marx is young enough to stay out late drinking, vomit in an alleyway, and then stumble home early the next morning to his wife and infant daughter.

Marx’s drinking buddy on the evening in question is an even younger Friedrich Engels, who, despite the movie’s title, takes up almost as much screen time as his more celebrated co-author. Placing a respectable third is Marx’s wife, Jenny, here depicted as her spouse’s political ally, worthy interlocutor, and — in a decision that will satisfy anyone who has ever asked, “When will I get to watch a sex scene featuring Karl Marx?” — romantic partner.

The consequences of Marx’s sex life are present, too — one daughter by the beginning of the film, and a second before its end. The complications of reconciling bourgeois family life with revolutionary political commitments provide the movie with some of its finest moments. Marx believed in his politics, and in his undeniable brilliance, but he knew that his choices condemned his family to a life of uncertainty. Hounded by hostile governments in city after city, he did not find a permanent home until he arrived in London shortly after turning 31.

He made it that far, in part, because he was a member of an international community of radicals. The internecine disputes between the fringes of the 19th-century left are often the most deadening passages in any Marx biography, and they are responsible for Marx’s worst writing. But Peck imbues these scenes with the drama they had for their participants. In the age of Wonder Woman and Black Panther, Marxists, too, have a movie that will make them feel seen.

For all its substantive daring, on matters of form this is a conventional work about a radical life. In interviews, Peck has noted that making a movie about Marx was enough of a challenge on its own: “You want me at the same time to play the artist and do a risky film about the way my camera moves and the way I edit? No, it’s complicated enough!” His concern is understandable. Any film where a character says, in an argument with the philosopher Bruno Bauer, “I’m sick of you too, Bauer, and all you young Hegelians!” is going to be a tough sell.

However understandable the desire to make the film accessible, the result is a movie where characters based on historical figures introduce themselves by their full names, often with a capsule biography to jog viewers’ memories. When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon appears, you can count the seconds until he announces, “Property is theft.” It takes just as little time for Mikhail Bakunin to shout, “Long live anarchy!” Visual cliches ease the viewer along, too. When Engels, the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, makes his way to a warmly lit pub filled with singing Irish workers, it recalls nothing so much as Kate Winslet’s descent below the decks of the Titanic.

There is also the question of whether any work of art focused on an individual life is an appropriate tribute to the inventors of historical materialism. Marx had a deep appreciation for theater, especially Shakespeare, but whether the rise and fall of modes of production leaves any room for human agency has been a subject of endless debate among his followers. It was one of his most insightful readers, the social critic Theodor Adorno, who dismissed mainstream cinema as a “misalliance between photography and the novel.”

Then again, Marx was an admirer of Charles Dickens, and given all the obstacles facing a film like this, it is a small triumph that The Young Karl Marx succeeds as much as it does. Peck strips away layers of mythology to find the humans underneath. Marx, appropriately, is the most fully rounded of his discoveries. He is simultaneously a passionate advocate for equality and a born skeptic, an abstruse social theorist and a hardheaded political activist. “Ignorance never helped anyone,” he announces, in what could serve as an epigraph for Marx’s collected works.

The movie is smart enough to let Marx’s antagonists score points. Proudhon cautions his young and brilliant friend not to follow the example of Martin Luther by tearing down one dogma only to replace it with another. The warning also gestures to the most compelling defense of Marx’s continued relevance: Wrong though he may have been about the details of socialism, he remains a prophetic analyst of global capitalism. The Marx whom Peck wants us to admire is the relentless critic who declares himself against “hypocrisy, stupidity, and brutal authority.” Whether the critic was already a dogmatist is a question Peck leaves to the side.

It is an issue worth pondering, though, for the movie’s intended audience. “The idea,” Peck said, “was to make a film for today’s young people.” As the credits roll, a highlight reel drawn from a century and a half of history draws a direct line between Marx’s time and ours, including plentiful shots of morose Wall Street traders during the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks.

Establishing this connection requires Peck to indulge in mythmaking of his own. The Young Karl Marx ends in 1848, with Marx, Engels, and Jenny taking turns reciting from the soon-to-be-published Communist Manifesto. Explanatory text that follows notes that revolutions broke out across Europe shortly thereafter and claims that Marx continued working on Capital until his death. But the revolutionary upheaval that swept across Europe owed little to the Manifesto, which did not attain anything like its subsequent notoriety until decades later. As for Marx, the best evidence suggests that he gave up working on Capital five years before his death. The second and third volumes appeared posthumously, and only because Engels was able to cobble them together out of the piles of notes his friend left behind. Marx had not given up on revolution. But his youthful confidence had not survived the intervening decades.

Confining his attention to the young Marx allows Peck to ignore that annoying fact. It also lets him skip past the most painful moments in Marx’s life. Most devastating was an affair with the family’s housekeeper, Helene Demuth — who had served Jenny as a teenager, and who appears briefly in the film — that, in 1851, produced a son. Engels claimed paternity of the boy, who was named Frederick, after his supposed father.

This Marx is not as attractive as the beautiful enemy of “hypocrisy, stupidity, and brutal authority,” but who doesn’t look best in their twenties? The glamorous rebel in this film is a more accessible figure than the monument Marx has become. More relatable still is the man who lived long enough to be disappointed by history, and by himself — the Marx who was no longer young.

Timothy Shenk is National Fellow at New America. 

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