There’s a specter haunting Europe — the specter of mediocre biopics. A straightforward period piece about the life and times of a radical man, Raoul Peck’s “The Young Karl Marx” is well-furnished and fitfully gripping stuff, but it desperately lacks the full-bodied fervor that crackles throughout his Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Snagged between the hard-nosed history of “Lumumba” (Peck’s sobering 2000 docudrama about the first prime minister of the Congo) and the jocular gusto of “Shakespeare in Love,” this immaculately furnished film sacrifices too much drama in order to expound upon its characters’ ideals, and sacrifices too much exploration of those ideals in order to accommodate for a healthy degree of drama. “I’m done fighting with needles,” Marx says, “I want a sledgehammer.” Peck opts for a safety net, ensuring that even the most electric moments never feel like they’re risking a challenge to the world as we know it.
“The Young Karl Marx” recognizes that revolution is a young person’s game, and so it it begins in 1843, when its namesake — already vibrating with a sociopolitical fervor that pulses from his feet all the way up through his wild frizz of black hair — was only 25 years old. Played by a compulsively watchable August Diehl (Major Hellstrom from “Inglourious Basterds”), Marx is living in exile with his sharp and sympathetic wife, Jenny (Vicky Krieps, holding the movie together). Meanwhile, in Manchester, Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) is growing restless. A budding philosopher who just happens to be the son of a wealthy manufacturer, the foppish-looking Engels has come to resent how his father exploits his employees. Incidentally, he’s also come to have a huge crush on a fiery (and recently fired) worker with curly red hair and a sparkling smile.
Marx and Engels have an obvious date with destiny, and despite some initial mistrust they soon become inseparable, a united front in trying to persuade the European underclass that a person’s worth should not be determined by their wage. The brunt of their energy is spent challenging a local communist thinker named Pierre Proudhon (Dardennes brothers muse Olivier Gourmet) and collaborating on the first of the many manifestos that they’d write together. Calibrated for the middlebrow but full of easter eggs for econ majors — in much the same way as Pixar movies aim for children but wink at adults — Peck and Pascal Bonitzer’s screenplay doesn’t explain why these pamphlets turned Hegel on his head, but it makes it very clear that they did.
Much like communism itself, “The Young Karl Marx” works best in broad strokes, as the film is far more successful at expressing abstract ideas than it is at putting them into practice. Painting Marx and Engels as the “disruptors” of their day and increasingly aligning himself with their ambitions, Peck uses their experiences to explore how money is the crux of all relationships, and how labor cannot be trusted to buy liberty. Thanks to a game and charismatic cast, the story’s characters are as richly drawn as they are poorly financed; Marx is humanized by the humor and vitality with which Diehl plays him, and his wife is never accessorized, but instead regarded as indispensable to this history.
Peck — who shoots with the steady confidence of hindsight and renders 19th Century Europe in a blown out haze of possibility and poor conditions — fails to get this material to sing for him until it’s too late. For a movie that trades in the same revolutionary zeal that has tattooed “Hamilton” onto the zeitgeist, Peck’s latest project lacks the unbridled creativity required to capture what it feels like to turn the world upside down.
The filmmaker insists that Marx’s “Capital” remains unfinished because the bourgeois continue to suffocate its ideas, but only the anachronistic folk song that plays over the closing credits manages to meaningfully convey how economics continue to narrate human history. “The Young Karl Marx” is a story that should never get old, but here it hardly feels worth telling.
“The Young Karl Marx” premiered in the Berlinale Special section at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.