Communism: The Love Story in ‘The Young Karl Marx’

Guest Contributor
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Six years ago, I stumbled upon a Charlie Rose interview with author Mary Gabriel, a 2011 National Book Award finalist for her “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution.” Intrigued, I ordered Gabriel’s book. By the time I finished “Love and Capital,” I was, as the British say, “gobsmacked.” What puzzled and surprised me, as a filmmaker, was that this turbulent epic, utterly engrossing and deeply romantic, had attracted so little attention. Why had this story not made it to the big screen, or materialized into a blockbuster television series? Is the name Karl Marx still so anathema? Then, a new film titled “The Young Karl Marx,” which premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival, suddenly found its way to Amherst Cinema. 

Even though I’d read some tepid reviews on the film website Rotten Tomatoes, curiosity lured me to the screening. I have no regrets: “The Young Karl Marx,” directed by Raoul Peck (the Haitian filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated James Baldwin documentary, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’), is a rare and unusual film — beautifully acted by a stellar cast, craftily scripted, and heavily focused on political content and character.

In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw described it as a “sinewy and intensely focused, uncompromisingly cerebral period drama… about the birth of communism in the mid-19th century.”

At the film’s center is its title character, played brilliantly by August Diehl. Bradshaw describes Diehl’s Marx as “ragged, fierce with indignation and poverty, addicted to cheap cigars, spoiling for an argument and a fight.” This is the notoriously nasty side of the Marx persona. But as Gabriel’s book, and many other biographies reveal, Marx’s character is fascinatingly complex. I have often tried to imagine what Marx must have been like, but I’ve been unable to wrap my brain around his multifaceted character. Exploring the complexities of Marx, the man, is perhaps the film’s greatest strength.  

For starters, Marx was viewed by his contemporaries as whip smart. Moses Hess, a socialist and early Zionist, once provided this over-the-top description of a young Marx: “You can look forward to meeting the greatest, perhaps the only real philosopher now living… He combines a biting wit with deeply serious philosophical thinking. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel united in one person, I say united, not lumped together — and you have Dr. Marx.” Edmund Wilson described Marx as the greatest satirist since Jonathan Swift.

But he was also a pussycat. As biographer Jonathan Sperber conveyed in his excellent “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life,” Wilhelm Liebknecht, a longtime personal friend of the Marx family, remembered Karl as “the most tender father: one must have seen Marx with his children to obtain a complete notion of the depths of sentiment and the childlike nature of this hero of Wissenschaft [academic pursuits]. In his free minutes, or while strolling, he brought them along, played the wildest and most lively games with them — in short he was a child among children.” 

“Children should educate their parents,” Marx once said, and he was true to his word. He shared a love of reading with his youngest daughter, Tussy, to whom he once told the story of the Passion — “the carpenter whom the rich men killed,” adding that much can be forgiven of Christianity because it has taught the adoration of the child. 

Because “The Young Karl Marx” dramatizes only a short five-year period in Marx’s life (1842 to 1847), a great deal of the Marx family saga remains untold: his childhood and family life in Trier, in Germany; Marx’s scorching love affair with the baron’s daughter, Jenny von Westphalen; the crucial role of his wife and three daughters in aiding and abetting him at every turn. In 1850, Karl had an affair with Helene Demuth, the family housekeeper. Nine months later, Helene gave birth to Karl’s illegitimate son, Freddy. Marx’s friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels stepped up and falsely claimed paternity of the boy, saving Marx’s bacon and preserving his marriage.

Perhaps these important omissions will be addressed when the Marx family saga finally becomes a long-running television series — whenever that may come to pass. While we wait, “The Young Karl Marx” is well worth the price of admission — if you can find it in theaters! Amherst Cinema screened it exactly once, at 10:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday. That’s a pity — the theater was 80% full. Why the rationing?

Ernest Urvater is a filmmaker living in Amherst. His programs include “Angles of a Landscape,” a trilogy of films about Emily Dickinson. 

Join Amherst Cinema and the Goethe-Institut Boston for “New Films From Germany.” Titles play once a month on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. Additional titles will be announced for December 17, January 21, February 18, March 11, April 15, May 13, and June 17.