The Young Karl Marx is director Raoul Peck’s follow-up to his unexpected success in 2016 with I Am Not Your Negro. Whether or not Peck meets the same success, he has undoubtedly given us something even more unexpected: a fictionalized biopic which renders Karl Marx, Father of Communism, as a young, kinetic sex symbol. August Diehl’s rogueish and romantic performance is as jarring as it is compelling, especially for that great majority of viewers who will imagine Marx more as a set of abstract (and vaguely sinister) political ideas —Marx as -ism —than an actual historical individual.
The film instantly brings to mind the more recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and indeed Stefan Konarske’s Freidrich Engels plays off of Marx in much the same way that Dr. Watson plays off of the great detective. Like Watson, Engels here serves as our interpretive entry point into an incomprehensibly perceptive mind. Peck wisely avoids trying to present genius directly, and instead has us infer it through the sidekick’s unbreakable faith in what he already knows is true. Which is, just as Watson knows Holmes has already solved the case, Engels knows Marx has already foreseen the civilizational transformations his writings will set in motion.
Young Marx is not aimed at those who are already familiar with Marx’s ideas about capitalism and class struggle, and are looking for a deeper exploration of them. That need is already well served by documentary films like Marx Reloaded. There are even English language manga available for such needs. Peck has said that this film, as well as I Am Not Your Negro, is intended for those wholly unfamiliar with either Marx or James Baldwin, Peck’s personal intellectual heroes. Thus, Young Marx is really like a feature-length trailer for the written works of Marx, and within this narrow premise Peck succeeds in truly inspired ways.
The purpose of a trailer is to entice, and Peck’s great insight here is to make Marx an object of desire. Diehl’s Marx somewhat resembles Luke Evans in The Hobbit films, and is an impossible amalgam of insouciant intellectual, romantically engaged husband and father, unblinking political operator, and fiery revolutionary agitator. In one scene Marx will be staring down a cold-hearted capitalist, in another passionately conceiving a child, and yet in another checkmating Engels in chess while ordering more beer for the table. These scenes are weaved together as Marx criss-crosses Europe with the apparent speed and ease of a private jetsetter, always claiming to be unwelcome by the authorities, and yet granted access everywhere.
All told, this vision of Marx should play no better than the kind of hamfisted propaganda that Communism was to be so well known for. Nor then should the political vision of Peck be expected to point any further than the cults of personality that would develop around Marxism. But yet Young Marx somehow avoids such grotesquery.
Perhaps by sticking so closely to the venerable biopic tropes as perfected in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia — and most similarly employed in Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries — Peck is simply giving Marx a Western media makeover that is proven to work. But all such films could only aggrandize their subject hero at the right moment in time, under the right political and social conditions. What are the “right” conditions, however, may not need to reflect deeply into the state of the world, but perhaps only superficial realities like the fact that every second college dorm room hung a poster of Che Guevara. As we all know, Che posters are a signal of “weed smoked here” and not opposition to American neocolonialism. Yet those Che posters nevertheless retained in them a political potential, because if we have permission to celebrate his image, then we have permission to support his cause.
Perhaps it is in the cause of granting young viewers cultural permission to engage in the liberation politics of the left that such a compelling oddity as Young Marx exists.
This article was originally published in Plan A Magazine, an examination of Asian American online culture.