“The Young Karl Marx” isn’t so much about the battle between proletariat and bourgeois as much as the growing divide between the entertained and bored moviegoing classes. This film feels like a walking Wikipedia article, a flick that portrays the history of Marx and his writings at this point in history without actually giving any drama as to why we should care.
We start off with the infamous Karl Marx, here depicted as a 20-something, up-and-coming thinker played by August Diehl. Diehl has spent much of his acting career playing European bad guys, like a military officer in “Allied,” and a cantankerous bar-going nazi in “Inglorious Basterds.” Marx is a nice change of pace for Diehl and he handles the role with deft and maturity.
It’s too bad for Diehl and us that Marx is paper-thin as a character. He’s depicted as a great thinker, a great family man and a great friend, but also as someone who really has to face any sort of real adversity or show any type of flaw throughout the film. When Marx is expelled from France, his buddy Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) just gives him money to help out. And when he has trouble getting something published, well, he just finds a different way to get that published. Woe is undoubtedly not Marx.
Engels is slightly more interesting as he juggles his hatred for his father and the love for his family’s money with a magician’s expert balance. He cares about the working class but feels conflicted about his position of power. And he isn’t afraid to stand up to Marx and guide him to do his best. One wonders why this movie wasn’t just focused on Engels from the get go. Then again, if Marx’s name wasn’t attached, many moviegoers would still be unaware of who Engels was.
Script and character troubles aside, the most glaring flaw with “The Young Karl Marx” is its jittery direction. Director Raoul Peck is constantly making us a ware of the camera’s presence, putting the frame into unnecessary motion when stillness will do just fine. The cinematography and set design also has the feel of a BBC miniseries more than a major feature. Non-descript cobblestone streets give us the impression of Europe, but no particular place there. And tattered clothes indicate that people are poor, but are of no particular era. It feels more like a lazy reenactment of a Renaissance fair than a studious look into life in the mid-19th century.
“The Young Karl Marx” does have strong female roles in Marx’s wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) and Engels’ wife Mary (Hannah Steele), but they never amount to fully-realized individuals like they should. The movie ends with Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” playing over the credits. Dylan supposedly had written down extra verses to that song, which, in a way, would make his released version unfinished or incomplete. That’s similar to how Marx never finished his master work, “Capital.”
You might think “Like a Rolling Stone” is a truly profound music selection for it’s free-wheeling nature, or you might think having that featuring an immensely popular song from the capitalist, American recording industry goes against everything Marx stood for. What is certain is when you hear “Like a Rolling Stone” play, you’ll be happy that it’s all finally over.