The 5 May marks 200 years since the birth of Karl Marx. To coincide with the anniversary a new film by Raoul Peck, The Young Karl Marx, looks at how the philosopher and his collaborator on The Communist Manifesto, Friedrich Engels, came to meet and form such a strong bond in Germany in 1844.
The Young Karl Marx is a kindred spirit to Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, about another Communist icon, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Both films are more interested in the youthful antics of the protagonists than their later work and exploits.
Director Peck claimed the Best Documentary Film Bafta this year for his incredible I Am Not Your Negro, a look at the battles that black people have had to fight for equality in America told entirely through the words of the novelist James Baldwin.
Born in Haiti in 1953, Peck fled the country, aged just 8, with his parents and two younger brothers. They escaped the Duvalier dictatorship and Peck grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Peck later attended schools in New York, where his mother worked at the UN, and in France, earning a baccalaureate before studying engineering and economics at Berlin’s Humboldt University, where he became enamoured with the work of Marx.
“All I am today is because of the structure that I got when I was young studying the work of Marx,” says the director. “At that time, in the 1970s and 1980s, you needed to confront yourself with those books, because it’s your past, it’s your present, it’s part of your general knowledge to understand the society that you are living in and in which you are an actor.”
Peck is an impressively built man, who looks much younger than his 64 years, and vernacular of an academic. He talks like he’s delivering a lecture, which he often is. Peck is the President of La Fémis, the prestigious Paris film school. He speaks with that mastery of his subject matter that can at times be intimidating but is always enthralling.
He argues that to understand society “Marx is the key”. He’s a man who backs up his analysis with numbers, with history, and with philosophy.
The film starts in 1843 at a time when Europe was dominated by absolute monarchies. It credits the Industrial Revolution in England as transforming the world’s order, in which a new proletariat class are creating workers’ organisations founded on the Communist notion that all men are brothers.
The film posits that two young Germans, Marx and Engels, will disrupt this notion and transform the struggle and future of the world.
“Marx never wrote any utopia,” says Peck, disparaging the commonly held perception. “In the film you see the people who wrote this utopia were [Pierre-Joseph] Proudhon and [Wilhelm] Weitling. Marx told them, both of them: ‘Let’s stick to reality, let’s develop something from reality.’ Marx never prophesied anything, except sometimes just as a joke or as a conversation.”
Peck argues that today, Marx’s writings are more relevant than ever: “You sum up the articles and it is exactly the description of the 2008 crisis. It’s like the children’s book of the history of capitalism and you can trace it until today. So what other proof do you need?”
Peck’s driving ambition was to make a film that would explain the socio-political context of the friendship between Marx (played by August Diehl) and Engels (Stefan Konarske). It starts with Engels witnessing revolts at his dad’s factory in Manchester, the Ermens and Engel Mill. At the same time, Marx is undertaking a more philosophical interpretation of the changes in society, whilst struggling with his journalistic deadlines.
Their spouses are also key characters. Marx’s wife Jenny (played by Phantom Thread star Vicky Krieps) and Engel’s spouse Mary Burns (Hannah Steele) are both as rebellious as their beaus.
He argues that this is not a period film, despite the era and the costumes. “I didn’t make a film about the past. I’m not interested in the past in that way.”
“I wanted to go back to that moment of creation in the film… to go back to the fundamentals, because the book he left is the most important thing,” states Peck. “How do we utilise this instrument to analyse society at a precise moment?”
And it’s this desire to connect to the present that has led to him make a movie that at times seems like an overly theoretical political analysis, and in other moments like a fun bromance, capturing the hijinks of ordinary young men.
“I hope that young people will recognise themselves in the film,” he says. “For me that would be the best thing. Because that’s what it’s about: How do I see or find a way to fight back against whatever is happening right now?”
What does need to be fought against right now? His response, unsurprisingly, includes President Trump and the widening gap between rich and poor.
I ask Peck how Marx ties in with the arguments that we see Baldwin making in I Am Not Your Negro. “When Baldwin says in my film ‘White is a metaphor for power,’ it’s another way of saying ‘Chase Manhattan Bank’. That’s Marx’s analysis. So there are some similar perspectives in the way to see society.
“Race is just one emanation of capitalism – like the whole thing about the refugees today. It’s not about the colour of the refugees – it’s about capitalism doing its job, separating people, dividing, and maintaining the status quo of those who want to protect their privilege.”
Peck believes that people can do more to change society, especially in the West where a kind of lethargy has crept in.
His childhood experiences have taught him that human rights and democracy are something that must constantly be fought for: “Democracy is not something that is fixed once and for all. I came from a country that had a dictatorship and I fought a lot for the restoration of democracy. I know the price of being able to vote.
“In the West, people use voting as a consumer good,” he adds, “you can sit down on your couch and watch a reality show. This is not democracy. Democracy is to be an active citizen, to question every day what you do in your job.”
‘The Young Karl Marx’ is out now