Sunday 11 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (10) - THE YOUNG KARL MARX (Raoul Peck, Germany). Reviewed by Max Berghouse

The Young Karl Marx (Le Jeune Karl Marx) (2017) Germany (German French and English spoken dialogue; subtitled). Raoul Peck (Director), Pascal Bonitzer and Raoul Peck (joint screenplay). With August Diehl (Marx), Stefan Conarske (Engels),Vicky Crieps (Mrs Marx) Oliver Gourmet(Proudhon), Hannah Steele (Mary) and Alexander Sheer (Weitling). Agat Films, Velvet Film and Rohfilm (Production Companies).

Something like this always happens at sometime in a film festival. One is going along quite nicely enjoying that which one has chosen to see, and then comes a film so abject by every possible descriptor that one wonders whether for the sake of one's own sanity, peace of mind and aesthetics, one should push one' s way through the aisle, of other, possibly suffering viewers and make a quick dash for the bus and hopefully a glass of red wine. Unfortunately it happened to me relatively early in this festival and it happened with this film.

The director, based on his other film (also shown at the festival this year) I am not your Negro is a technician and artist/documentarian well capable of admiration. Why he became involved in this mishmash is quite beyond me. It's not even good enough to be edited and shown on some late-night Foxtel history program about the inception of Marxist thought.

Firstly it is wildly historically inaccurate. Most of the events, at least concerning the development of Marxist philosophy and the events in the life of both Marx and Engels did happen, more or less as shown in the film. But the order of events is frequently changed from reality, presumably for dramatic effect. The crucial historical date as relevant to the film is 1848, a year of almost universal European revolution which augured in if not democracy, at least a more liberal state system generally. But most of the important statements about "communism" occurred after this date, and not before as shown in the film. My complaint about this is that it really has no effect whatsoever on dramatic narrative – which is largely invisible in this film and so has no justification of itself. I'm somewhat torn about changes in the historical narrative to suit some dramatic imperative because film is such a powerful medium that what a film shows, when it purports to be biographical, tends to be absorbed much more rapidly than the reality described in a history book. But in this case the whole effect is pointless. Just to give one example: Engels Senior was an extremely successful textile mill proprietor who underwrote his son' s life expenses and which enabled Engels to support Marx is shown disputing with his son at their textile mill in Manchester. So far as I'm aware if Engels Senior ever went to England, and I think he didn't, it was well after the period of this film.

Secondly and this is revealed at the climax of the film in which the Communist International (subsequently as described in the Communist manifesto) comes into being and is described by Engels as being inherently revolutionary, that is violent. The thinking of Marx on this point, and at that time, is not clear.

Thirdly information about philosophy, as understood by the protagonists Marx and Engels (and others who are characters in the film whom history has largely forgotten) are shown via almost interminable soliloquies/addresses without any interaction between characters. (I am of sufficient age to remember compulsory lectures at university on Marxist – Leninist thought and this was a time when the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe still purported to be viable vehicles of its philosophy and all I can remember is interminable boredom coupled with some mild outrage that this "philosophy" seemed to be able to justify practically anything.) Perhaps this affects my judgement but I really don't think a short scene in which Marx describes breaking with the "Young Hegelians" nor generalised descriptions elsewhere of "dialectic materialism", the publication of a philosophical tract "The Holy Family" which has absolutely no reference to religion that causes enormous consternation or the attempt to show that a joint writing venture between Marx and Engels to be called "Critique Of Critical Critique" is – wait for it – humorous. Put bluntly, it's highly unlikely that philosophy is a good subject for film. Philosophers may be, but not the content of their thought.

Within the events and characters displayed, a worthwhile dramatic story may have been developed. Marx clearly was a profound thinker. So too was Engels. In fact one good thing about this film is that it shows how significant Engels was in terms of the development of Marxist thought and this is something that has only been acknowledged since the fall of communism itself. But Marx was an irritable, exceptionally touchy and argumentative grouch who spent his whole life making enemies. That comes across in the film. Young Engels might have been genuinely concerned with the plight of the proletariat but he comes across as a fairly vapid and immature fop. Bad temper in the case of Marx and unearned wealth in the case of Engels do not easily create identifiable and sympathetic characters. Put bluntly this film is a bromance without the homoerotic aspects which seem to make these sorts of films engaging. The long an apparently happy marriage between Marx and his wife despite their disparity in background and the genuine friendship with Engels which led him to support Marx for most of his life, these may well have been capable had been turned into a dramatic narrative of interest but it's hardly the me to suggest that in the face of what the director has chosen to do.

Most of the acting is poor and in the case of a number of the supporting roles of lesser socialist lights is simply dismal. Settings appear to be accurate to the period although I have some doubts that the lower end of the working class accommodation was quite as dire as depicted.

This film started out badly: one had a sense of dissatisfaction and unease from the first few minutes. And it never got better. My partner has a much greater affinity with documentary film and she found the film quite acceptable because she maintained it gave her information about something she knew nothing about. So to that extent she found it "interesting" and that may well be the reaction of many people. I couldn't wait to escape.

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