Today marks the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth (1818-1883). I recently watched this film that covers the period when the young Marx became friends with Friedrich Engels, a relationship that lasted a lifetime. It deals with the period from 1843-1849, a time as Marx, his wife Jenny, and his young daughter moved from Paris to Brussels before ending up in London. The film ends with Marx and Engels publishing the Communist Manifesto.
I realized that although I had read some of Marx’s works, I knew very little about his life and this film gave a good background, though one has to be wary of the accuracy of biopics. His wife Jenny von Westphalen, whom he married in 1843, was a baroness, the daughter of Prussian aristocracy who gave up everything to marry a poor, Jewish, atheist, communist. They struggled financially all their lives, but got help from the wealthy Engels.
Friedrich Engels, on the other hand, was the son of a wealthy German industrialist who owned factories in the UK. His father was symbolic of the repressive and exploitative capitalist class that Engels fought against. He married Mary Burns, one of the workers in one his father’s factories. The film shows how Jenny and Mary shared in the ideals of Marx and Engels and were themselves fiery advocates for the cause of worker’s rights.
Kate Aronoff wrote about the film and how its ideas resonate with young people today in the UK and US in the campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
While it flirts with the conventions of period dramas, “The Young Marx” is, above all, an ideological coming-of-age story for a generation doing exactly that.
In this, “The Young Karl Marx” engages in its own kind historical materialism, to use a loose sense of the term. Marx’s work — and socialist and academic interpretations of it, in particular — can feel hallowed, like infallible sacred texts sent down from on high. True to life, the Marx we see is no saint: He drinks too much, has sex, procrastinates, burns bridges, and is a sometimes absent husband and father. What Peck offers is a human (albeit unmistakably flattering) portrait of Marx and Engels, men who were each shaped deeply by their circumstances — the particular moment in history that they happened to find themselves, the idiosyncrasies of the movements they aligned themselves with, the friends and partners with whom they collaborated, maybe even the number of drinks they had on a given night.
While [director Raoul] Peck unfortunately downplays Engels hedonism, it’s still gratifying to see a man who’s been so roundly either forgotten or misinterpreted get his due. In a similar vein, Jenny von Westphalen (Vicky Krieps) is a well-developed character and her husband Marx’s interlocutor, who — along with Engels — helps provide the emotional, financial, and intellectual support that made it possible for Marx to develop into the thinker he was. We also get an endearing portrait of Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), Engels’s wife from the polar opposite end of industrial Europe’s class divide; Engels — the well-to-do son of a Rhineland manufacturer — met Burns, a textile worker, as he was researching “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” published in 1845.
Raoul Peck, then, can’t really take credit for making Marx sexy again. Capitalism and all its attendant horrors did that for him. What he, Marx, and Engels offer are a few prescriptions for today’s young socialists looking to challenge capitalism: better theory, more practice, and maybe even a few wild parties along the way.
Here’s the trailer.