“The Young Karl Marx” is a less than exciting but decent period biopic movie about Marx and Engels in their 20s from 1844-1848, featuring star turns from actresses playing the wives of the authors of The Communist Manifesto. The plot, which mostly consists of Marx and Engels arguing with other leftists like Proudhon and Bakunin, isn’t all that compelling but it’s presented with historical accuracy and lucidity. The sets of northern Europe during the hard times of the 1840s are wholly persuasive.
It’s more or less the opposite movie of the anti-Marxist The Death of Stalin.
This trilingual (German, French, and English) movie, directed by a Haitian named Raoul Peck, offers a more traditional economics-oriented interpretation of Marx in contrast to the more culturally-oriented Marx pioneered by the Frankfurt School based on Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. Thus, we see Engels telling Marx he needs to learn English to read Adam Smith and David Ricardo (always confident, Marx replies, “I’m a quick learner”), followed by Marx wrestling with the Labor Theory of Value.
Marx is portrayed realistically as a sardonic man always assuming he’s the smartest guy in the room, while Engels is a rich kid of talent who chooses to play second banana to his buddy. The movie does not explore the question it inevitably raises: Would things have worked out better if Engels had been the more dominant personality?
Karl Marx is a traditional paterfamilias struggling to support his wife, growing number of children, and their servant; in contrast, Engels’ girlfriend is staunchly opposed to marriage and maternity but her sister isn’t. (After his girlfriend’s death, Engels married her sister right before his own death.)
The star turns in the movie come from the actresses playing Marx’s wife, the aristocrat Jenny von Westphalen, and Engel’s Irish working class girlfriend Mary Burns, played by Hannah Steele as the epitome of the Irish spitfire.
The lovely Mrs. Marx is portrayed by Vicky Krieps, the Luxembourg actress who more than held her own as Daniel Day-Lewis’s girlfriend in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent The Phantom Thread. Krieps plays pretty much the same role: the genius’s muse whose fashion model willowiness makes her initially seem weak, but whose willpower eventually makes her a little scary.
Krieps tells a funny story about how she didn’t closely read the email from her agent asking her to make an audition tape for a film reuniting Anderson and Day-Lewis from There Will Be Blood, which is perhaps the most famous movie acting role of this century:
“When I made the tape I thought it was for a student film,” Krieps said. Anderson quickly snapped back, “The writing was that good.”
… Krieps didn’t even realize she’d be sharing much of the film with the three-time Oscar winner until three weeks after she was cast.