There’s a beautiful scene towards the end of “The Young Karl Marx” in which the better halves of Karl Marx (August Diehl) and Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) — Jenny Marx (Vicky Krieps) and Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), respectively — sit by the sea, describing their plans for the future. The years ahead are bound to look different in the wake of the recent publication of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, but the women of different social standing with convictions as strong as their partners aren’t about to have their views shaken by greater notoriety, considering their plans for family as calmly as the tides gently roll up on the shore. Ironically, the quiet contributes to why the moment feels nearly as radical as any of the ideas put forth in the Manifesto, not only for the rare sight of two women given equal footing to men in terms of onscreen presentation, particularly when their characters discuss how they’ll balance their political activism against their personal lives, but to engage in a passionate conversation that shows that while the two have shared goals, they can respectfully disagree as to how they’ll achieve them.
“It was great to put them together in a scene, knowing that their lives are somehow linked now,” director Raoul Peck said recently. “And still to see the surprise of Jenny learning [from Mary saying], “Oh, Friedrich can have a kid with [my sister] Lizzie. It doesn’t matter to me.” She was learning from Mary — she was not just a bourgeois wife looking down on a working class woman [such as Mary]…It’s really the beginning of a lifelong friendship.”
Obviously, the women don’t get the top billing in “The Young Karl Marx,” but then again even the titular figure has to take a backseat to his notions of class structure in Peck’s invigorating drama about the birth of Communism, as you see how the ideology was formed by societal conditions that Marx was ultimately able to put to paper in partnership with Gottfried Engels, the son of a German textile factory owner who took a strong interest in the working poor. As Peck did so piercingly in his “I Am Not Your Negro” with the work of James Baldwin, he is able to illuminate Marx’s line of thinking while articulating how he arrived at his conclusions, not simply intellectually, but withstanding the slings and arrows of the political engagement necessary to get those ideas across to the cognosenti and ultimately, the masses, distributing handbills on the streets to eventually working his way into the League of the Just, the band of German revolutionaries in England that was eventually transformed into the base of the Communist Party.
Naturally, bringing a subject as contentious as Marxism to the screen was just as arduous, with Peck compiling enough material over a decade with co-writer Pascal Bonitzer to produce a miniseries (which the director still says he’s open to) as the film sought out financiers willing to back what would be the first dramatic film ever to feature the revolutionary socialist at its center. Against all odds, the filmmaker not only secured funding but rewarded both its backers and its audience with a film that rises above its period underpinnings to speak directly to the present as political movements around the world don’t lack for energy, but often for organization and ideas get lost to practical considerations of politics. Shortly before the film arrives in America following its premiere last spring at the Berlin Film Festival, Peck spoke about working on films about two great thinkers in Marx and Baldwin simultaneously, how “The Young Karl Marx” evolved over time and creating an arresting end coda that unlocks the film from any specific moment in time.
You’ve said at the very beginning of the creative process, this started as a nonfiction/narrative hybrid. How did it become a full narrative?
After two or three years of working on a viable, experimental approach, I just decided that it was not the proper result for me. I wanted to be more inside the characters, closer to them and tell this incredible story of three young people deciding to change the world, so I thought the approach with fiction would be stronger and I was quite engaged in the fact that it would be the first [narrative] film on Karl Marx ever in the Western world.
Because the development of this occurred over the same time it took to make “I Am Not Your Negro,“ was there any cross-pollination between the two on taking the thoughts of such great thinkers and make them cinematic?
I felt at home with both thinkers. Baldwin is not very far from Marx in his way of comprehending the history of the world, in understanding how capitalism works. In fact, in “I Am Not Your Negro,” there is this wonderful sentence that could be from Marx himself when he says, “White is not a color. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.” This is a perfect Marxian definition somehow, and for me as a filmmaker, the two films engaged [me] for the same reason, which was [to become] a response to this world of ignorance that I felt we are engulfed in. These two films are the perfect antidotes.
I agree. I understand you really limited yourself to the correspondence between Marx and Engels from 1843 to 1850. How did that become the backbone for this film?
This is a project we went through different drafts and I can tell you at the end, we basically had seven hours of story, starting from Marx and Jenny as young kids in Trier [Germany] to their last home in England, but in the course of development and financing, we had the privilege to continue the work and at some point, we decided to stay on this five-six year [period], which were really important in terms of the development of Marx’s thinking that started with his exile in France and finished with him writing the Communist Manifest in 1848. It was the perfect time [to examine] the growth of the thinking, which was the challenge of this film.
It’s not your usual biopic. I’ve heard some people say, “Well, the form is a bit conventional,” but that was not the problem – that was not the goal. The difficulty was how do you make a two-hour film about the evolution of an idea and not be bored by it. [The challenge wasn’t formal – it] was not about any montage or camera movement or cutting the storyline in anachronistic way. It really was about how do you do the impossible task to tell the story of the greatest thinker of all time in two hours and still understand it.
Creating context visually then becomes so important – with the production design in particular, you seem to tell so much about the class struggle that Marx sees. How did you work with your crew to create that detail?
I have the chance to have people that have worked for me on many different films, both [low-budget] films or [higher-budget] films and [they’ve] been really faithful with me, so they know how I work and I don’t need to tell them [what I want]. Well, I did tell my set designer, think a slum in Haiti, and he knew what I was talking [about] because I did two films with him in Haiti. But it was the same with the costume designer. She knows I don’t go for brand new costumes, that there is a patina that I like, and because she was aware of the project many years before we shot the film, she could work on it, [while] making other films [over the years]. That kind of collaboration is priceless because you’re not carrying the whole project on your shoulders. You have people that bring their own ideas, their own initiative into the project, so I could concentrate much more on the writing and on the working with the actors. That’s why you have this quality [where] anything on the set you could use as real objects. I want to give the actors the capacity to use anything they have on the set with them, so I care for that.
Was it apparent from the correspondence between Marx and Engels that their partners, Jenny and Mary, respectively, would have such prominent roles in the film?
Oh yes. Of course, Jenny was a side character in the official story, as told by the different Communist parties or the historians [who did] much of the storytelling of this era — they insist on the Bigger Man [narrative] — but I knew that we would have to get Jenny in a better place, so draft after draft, we made sure that the Jenny character would come out much more clearly. Jenny [was] one of the few people with Engels capable of reading Marx writing because he had such impossible handwriting, and it’s because Jenny understood the content as well. She participated. When we were looking at documents to use a set on the set, we had very real copies of their writing for the Manifest and there were pages where we could recognize Jenny’s handwriting. Mary Burns also is a character that had been somehow set aside and we knew from our research how important she was in particular for allowing Friedrich Engels to go into those dark neighborhoods in Manchester to write his famous work on the condition of the working class in England. She was one of the major people in bringing him to the League of the Just, so it was important to step up the role of these women because they did have an important role.
How did you know you found the right guys to play Marx and Engels?
A long, long session of casting in all of Europe. [laughs] Because not only we needed to find the right cast, but also a cast that could speak all three languages correctly. I didn’t want to dub anybody. I wanted them to be in the reality of [the history], like the real Marx and the real Engels and real Jenny used those [various] languages in their correspondence. You could see in some of their letters they used phrases or words in French or in English, depending on what they wanted to say, so I needed this fluent sense of communication. Then I like to work with people who have theater experience because they are really the best to create characters for which we have no model whatsoever [since it was the first dramatization of Marx onscreen], or even worse, we have to create characters that have a hundred years of caricature on their shoulder. You can imagine staging a love scene between Jenny and Karl – for some people, it’s almost a sacrilege. [Audiences] never saw this granite statue as a human being. So we had to invent everything. We had to be sure of how close we were with the real story of these people and the correspondence helped us a lot. For the casting, it was not so much looking to find actors who looked alike [to the real people], but trying to find actors who had the capacity to create real characters in the real dynamic of the time.
The film ends with a blast of rebellious energy as the end credits roll to a montage of historical revolutions since the time of Marx. How did you decide that was where you wanted to leave audiences?
It was key for me because the danger of making a costume film, as they call it [because] it was important that people understand it’s not just a nice story that I’m telling about an old character that had died many years ago. For me, it was key to understand that the film is about today. It’s about the same capitalist society that exists and that Marx wrote about and [I had] to connect the dots to today through the images and through the voice of Bob Dylan, a really universal voice that everybody in every country knows and understands. This montage from the First World War to the economical crisis afterwards, up to the Vietnam War, Che Guevara, Reagan and Thatcher and we jump to Mobutu killing Lumumba and Mandela up through the subprime crisis and the migrant crisis of today, all this is linked. Marx wrote that the history of humankind is the history of class struggle. This is illustrated exactly through through crisis, through war, through racism, through apartheid, etc.
It’s the same war being waged today, and with different forms, sometimes hidden, [where the forces involved] make sure we don’t understand the links. People today don’t understand the link between the situation of Congo today and the killing of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 that prevented that country from having a real democracy for almost 60 years now. We are capable of using the riches of Congo in our iPhone and in our television [from] all the metals that exist and are still being exploited in the Congo, but they have no link [in the public consciousness] or with what is happening right now in the East of Congo where there is still war because a faction is fighting for access to minerals. So it’s this fragmented world in which we lost the connections. Although we should be connected today by the modern technology, the contrary has happened.
We think that [as] a new generation, we are inventing everything. But no, we are in the continuity of a long history where we subjected to consequences for past errors or past wars or past crises. We can’t just wake up and say “Well, I’m born in 1980, everything else before me has nothing to do with me.” It’s the same with race in the United States. “Well, slavery is far away and I had nothing to do with it.” Whether you like it or not, it’s part of your history, as well as the fact that the American natives were decimated. As Baldwin says, you can’t build a dream on two genocides. You need to acknowledge it. It’s about knowing your history so you can stop making mistakes and confront it, and then decide collectively what you want to do with the knowledge.