The Young Karl Marx: Birth of a working-class superhero

Review: A cerebral bromance between the charismatic Marx and the rakish Engels

The Young Karl Marx
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Director: Raoul Peck
Cert: Club
Genre: History
Starring: August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Krieps, Olivier Gourmet, Hannah Steele
Running Time: 0 hr 0 mins

Released to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth, the new film from Raoul Peck is no mere biopic, but a superhero-style origin story for the Communist Manifesto.

It's an odd, daring film defined by many second and third languages and wavering accents: we're not sure what Hannah Steele was going for with her lively depiction of Engels's Manchester-Irish domestic partner Mary Burns, but it's a long, long way from Burns's Tipperary origins. It's an odd, ambitious film that doesn't shy away from shifting dynamics of Hegelianism and the big personalities and complicated rivalries of 19th-century thought.

Most challengingly, it’s a film about a political pamphlet.

Still, Mr Peck, the former Haitian minister for culture who seemed to magically reanimate James Baldwin for the Bafta-winning documentary I Am Not Your Negro, somehow reworks the most influential text of the 19th century into a lively, relevant historical drama.



At its heart, The Young Karl Marx is a cerebral, frock-coated bromance between the charismatic, combustible Marx and the rakish Friedrich Engels. The latter is the young German son of a Manchester mill owner who, appalled by the abuses he has witnessed, has published The Condition of the Working Class in England when he meets the Manifesto's co-author.

Marx is initially unimpressed by this privileged young chronicler of the underprivileged, but the pair slowly bond over talking, wine, cigars, more talking, and various escapades.

August Diehl's mesmerising Marx is a force of nature, jollied along by righteous anger and poverty. He and his small family are hounded across Europe as he defies and annoys various authorities.

His aristocratic-born wife, Jenny von Westphalen (Phantom Thread's Vicky Krieps) is as unconventional and outspoken as he is. She doesn't blink an eye when she first finds a hungover Engels on her kitchen floor. Tellingly, both she and Mary Burns, the former Chartist, are present while the politicised quartet hastily redraft and rewrite the Manifesto to meet a deadline set by the central committee of the Communist League.

Chase scenes

Peck works in chase scenes and coups between the dialectics. Various compelling stand-offs include Marx’s snarling exchange with a mill-owner who insists that child labour is necessary to remain competitive. A dream sequence involving peasants who are brutalised for collecting the dead twigs from a forest floor is as powerful as it is illuminating.

Kolja Brandt’s cinematography makes a modest production budget look lavish. Frédérique Broos’s editing fuels the film’s sense of urgency, a sensation that lingers long after the final credits.

Two centuries on and, just in time for his birthday, at Raoul Peck’s insistence: Marx lives.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic