The scene is historically accurate in at least two senses: landowners in the wine-growing area of Trier, where Karl Marx was born, were just then asserting exclusive ownership over common lands where tradition afforded villagers limited but important rights, like the gathering of firewood. And it was this local issue, rather than any historical -isms or abstractions, that first crystallized the young Marx’s sense that he was living in a place and a time of new and terrible injustice. His analysis of what was happening, the subject of one of his early journalistic pieces, is pronounced, sentence by outraged sentence, in opening voice-over.
It’s a very different introduction to Marx than, say, that of Gareth Stedman Jones in his new biography. Stedman Jones emphasizes, quite properly, the French Revolution, German republicanism (which included much enthusiasm for French ideas) and the Prussian reaction against it, the troubled status of local Jews (which induced Marx’s father to convert to Christianity), and of course the many swirling currents of radical thought in which Marx swam as a student and then, when hopes of an academic career were blocked, as a journalist and revolutionary. But the scene in the forest, with its beauty and its violence, cuts through all that. It makes sense of everything that follows, a sense that feels permanent, unshakable by any subsequent events.
It’s 1843. Radicals of all sorts are shouting at each other in smoky rooms. Communism is one idea they are shouting about. The film is about the taking over, refocusing, and mobilizing of that idea. By the end, it is 1848, revolutions are breaking out, and you are ready to believe that communism is indeed, as described in the famous first line of The Communist Manifesto (just published in January), a specter haunting Europe.
As we saw recently in I Am Not Your Negro (2016) and, a decade and a half earlier, in Lumumba (2000), Raoul Peck likes to make movies about people he admires. He did not argue with Lumumba or Baldwin, and he does not argue with Marx. In each case, what he offers is an appreciative, even loving, synopsis. And if that entails leaving certain things out (like Baldwin’s sexuality), so be it. Here, Peck’s choice of a five-year chunk of Marx’s life means that much of the film will be given over to arguments among the radical groups and positions — arguments won, we are led to believe, by the forceful personality and superior insight of Marx, aided by his faithful friend Engels and faithful wife Jenny. And it means that this will not be a film about the mature Marx, author of Capital, let alone the posthumous Marx — in other words, it will not be about the absorption of Marx into Marxism, the takeover of Marxism by the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, the authority Marxism wielded, or the suffering in which it was implicated. Peck freezes the story in a moment of maximum idealism and hope. In that sense, this film could be described as post-ironic.
The pace is snappy, and each of the scenes is pointed. At the outset, we find ourselves with Marx in the editorial offices of the Rheinische Zeitung, where his article on the suppression of the local wood gatherers has caused a fuss; police assemble in the street below, and the paper’s editors are about to be carted off to jail. In the paddy wagon, Marx is already being offered another editorial job, this time in Paris. We jump to Manchester, where Engels is appalled by his father’s harshness toward his textile workers. The young Engels follows out of the factory a bold, politically sophisticated Irish woman who has just been fired. He tells her Irish friends to call him Fred and falls in love. We jump to Paris, where, despite a crying baby, Marx and Jenny are enjoying playful young love, as politically committed as it is erotically charged.
As a filmmaker, Peck is unafraid of cliches that play to the groundlings. We meet famous people. We notice Courbet, artist of the people, at work on a canvas. We hear Proudhon in the act of declaiming his most famous proposition: that property is theft. We recognize the Russian anarchist Bakunin when, listening to Proudhon’s speech, he cries out, “Vive l’anarchie!” (Marx tells Bakunin that he himself is not an anarchist, but he allows Bakunin to introduce him to Proudhon, thereby acquiring some cultural capital that will be useful to him later in London.) At the end of the wild Parisian evening when Marx and Engels get drunk and become friends, Marx announces that up to now philosophers have interpreted the world, but the point is to change it.
American audiences, who are accustomed to bromance (D. H. Lawrence said it’s our national myth), may be disappointed that the friendship of Marx and Engels does not become an excuse for rough-but-affectionate masculine banter or a “private” subject in its own right that supplements or even undercuts the film’s no-nonsense concern with radical history. We see Marx beating Engels at chess, but Engels takes it well. They admire each other’s writings. The womenfolk — Marx’s aristocratic wife Jenny von Westphalen and Engels's Irish working-class common-law wife Mary Burns — are brought out of the shadows and shown to have been informed, self-conscious, active contributors to what came to be known as Marxism. (Jenny has one of the film’s best lines: listening to Marx and Engels go on about their disagreements with the Young Hegelians, she suggests, gently sardonic, that their joint essay might be titled “Critique of Critical Criticism.” The men laugh, but it’s not clear they’ve understood. She also notes that they will need to be more than two couples in order to change the world.) Between the men, the allegory is straightforward: what Marx brings to the collaboration is German philosophy, what Engels brings is knowledge of the world’s first industrial working class, which is English (and Irish). Engels seems to know, and not to mind, that his name will not figure in the film’s title. He tells Marx that he needs to read the British political economists, and Marx immediately does. There seem to be no dark places between the two that need exploring.
In general, the film seems almost too well lit. Lurid slums flash up, but quickly disappear. There is no lack of people who are clearly poor, cold, and hungry, yet they remain in the background, good evidence for Marx’s worldview whether he is noticing them or not. (I for one was grateful that I was not force-fed large helpings of Marx’s personal good-heartedness.) In the foreground, camera angles, lighting, and sound design combine to create for the main characters an enviable if uncanny sense of comfort — one hesitates to call it “bourgeois,” but the word does come to mind. Even when the Marx household is clearly not comfortable at all, as it mainly wasn’t, the decor, carefully chosen for period authenticity, makes it look comfortable. The lighting is soft and enticing, even when the subject is the harshness of ordinary lives, a subject the film has an obvious stake in reminding us of. The film itself makes no assaults on our senses to compare with the opening assault of the police on the wood gatherers. The glint and glare, the metals and the plastics, the constant fluorescent buzz and rumble of modern so-called civilization are missing. Even the Engels factory in Manchester looks, as presented, relatively inviting. The fact that people spend a lot of screen time smoking and drinking gives the film a perversely Mad Men–like vibe, as if people knew how to live better back when they didn’t know better. The strange yet overwhelming feeling is that existence in the 19th century, artisanally cobbled together with lots of wood and candles, had a pre-industrial attractiveness, almost like the primeval forest of the opening sequence.
Comfortable is not what one would have expected to feel in a film about the young Marx. Is the film at odds with itself then? Perhaps not. It’s as if you were getting, compressed into the same frame, what the revolution is for (the good life) as well as the misery and injustice that it’s against. The slogan “workers of the world unite” is embodied, obliquely, in the fact that this Franco-German co-production features actors who are fluent in French as well as German, with English thrown in, and indeed sometimes go back and forth between the various languages for no apparent reason except perhaps to show that in a future society, if our side wins, such matters as language and nationality will no longer make people hate each other. The central friendship and the two supporting marriages also function, unavoidably, as images of a social harmony that would make all the political sacrifices worthwhile.
It would have been easy enough for Peck to give in to the prevailing ethos and show, instead, the private sacrifices that all public achievement entails. (Granted, that moral seems inescapable these days only for women, not for men.) But Peck is uninterested in using the supposedly truer truths of character or personality to get the drop on abstract ideas, as if the ideas were less essential or authentic than the person who gave rise to them. His version of materialism, like Marx’s, rejects what Hegel and Lukács called a “valet-de-chambre” view of history — the sort of meanspiritedness for which what really counts is not public deeds, but what the great men looked like, warts and all, to the servants who were helping them get dressed. It seems fitting that there is no trace here of Marx’s famous skin lesions, which he disgustedly thought were boils but may have been a far more serious case of hidradenitis suppurativa. It seems defensible that no mention is made of his illegitimate child, whom Engels pretended was his own.
Much of the film has to do with the infighting between Marx and Engels and their allies on the left, the more or less microscopic, more or less utopian groupuscules that dreamed of overturning the established order but spent most of their time arguing angrily with each other. These groups were easy to mock then, and they are much easier to mock now. But Peck doesn’t give in to mockery, perhaps because his subject is, after all, something like a miracle: that out of such unlikely, anxiety-ridden, uncertain lives a movement of great moral generosity was born.
The centering of the soundtrack on German and French, which used to be seen as the two indispensable languages of Europe, might make one think the film itself is European in the narrow sense. I think the opposite is true. A genuinely European film on the subject of Karl Marx would almost certainly have been more ironic. It could hardly have avoided, say, the charge, after Marx’s death, that Engels was responsible for vulgarizing his friend’s thought and making stronger claims for its scientific authority than Marx himself ever made. By taking a large step back, however, Peck could suggest that the most basic point, on which Marx and Engels agreed — the division of the world into have’s and have-not’s — was not wrong. The textile mills of Manchester, where Engels worked so uncomfortably for his industrialist father, are now largely located in the Global South. In a sense, this is a movie of the Global South, though it neither shows nor discusses the Global South. The film suggests that the world has changed since the mid-19th century — and also that it hasn’t. The details are different; the big picture remains the same.
It’s a film that refuses to notice the trees and miss, as the saying goes, the forest.
Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University.