Director Raoul Peck On Why We Need The Young Karl Marx

When Raoul Peck, director of The Young Karl Marx, defines what success would look like, it's not in box office terms. Instead, Peck hopes the movie (and the man, brought to life by August Diehl) can be a rallying point for the disparate leftists, socialists, progressives, social democrats and anti-authoritarians emerging in response to a global wave of right-wing, capitalist power.

From the elemental power of folklore to the presidents, wars and disaster capitalism defining our immediate experience, The Young Karl Marx makes its ambition clear: to capture and analyze both the root relations and specific effects of the world as only Marx could. For Peck, whose documentary profile of James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, was nominated for an Academy Award, Marx offers a disparate and desperate movement a framework to understand the parameters of a confusing political battleground.

A limited theatrical run for The Young Karl Marx begins Friday in the United States after festival runs and theatrical premieres abroad. Peck found the reception in France especially heartening, where youth movements centered meetings and reunions around screenings. "All those parties fight each other, so it was interesting to see something that rings true, that draws them all together despite their political fights," Peck told Newsweek. "There's a fundament to the movement that they need to come back to. Because Marx was not dogmatic. Marx always said you need to reanalyze your current situation and your historic situation."

Less than a biopic than the history of an idea, The Young Karl Marx builds to the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Shaped by both the rowdy rally halls of contemporary socialist discourse and his fruitful collaborations with Friedrich Engels, The Young Karl Marx rebuts many of the most common misconceptions about the man and his work. Marx's analysis of capitalist society in the wake of the Industrial Revolution didn't invent communism or any of the other ideologies we associate with Marxism, but instead offered a systematic rigor to what was otherwise a loose movement of populists, Young Hegelian intellectuals, street agitators, Christian millenarianism and striking workers.

"Because of my upbringing and my political engagement, I don't believe in an individual saving anybody. That would be very populist and we see that in the electoral process. I think the way to get out is to build new collectives," Peck said.

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The Young Karl Marx dramatizes the theorist's place in a combative, but productive coalition. Agat Film / Velvet Film / The Orchard photo: Kris Dewitte

The Young Karl Marx is awash in clamoring groups and competing interests, particularly the League of the Just, a loose, revolutionary coalition of international workers riven by strategic disagreements, who find new purpose as The Communist League, for which Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto. The Young Karl Marx depicts political infighting and the turmoil of organizing as a necessary condition for change. "You can't force somebody to vote for you. You have to convince them. It's about discussion, it's about proving what you're saying. So it's a long road. There is no secret. Today we expect that unique figure that will suddenly bring us to the light. That will never happen. It's a process," Peck explained.

The clarifying tools Marx and Engels offered that movement are still there, available to anyone hoping to understand society today. "Hints from a long history," Peck called it. T he action of the movie doesn't come from a hero, but from the grinding work of building new political coalitions: the tedious debates, networking, internal strife and sloganeering that builds to a revolution in thought and a change in society. The real plot, The Young Karl Marx says, is process.

And rather than Marx the elder statesman, surrounded by his halo of white hair, The Young Karl Marx valorizes the personal stakes of being part of history. Though depicted as an uncommonly clear thinker, The Young Karl Marx is as much about the high social cost of pursuing political revolution. Marx isn't a hero for his genius, but for stepping up, even as he struggles with bills, drinks too much with Engels and feels the pressure of failing his growing family. Just as The Communist Manifesto emerged from a movement, with Marx and Engels as the magnifying lens that focused its ideas into clarifying fire, Marx the man arose from his family and friends, especially the relationship with his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread ).

"That's the first thing I wanted: young people to see themselves in the lives of those three other young people who just decided, 'we are rich, we are a middle-class family or industrial family, but what we see around us isn't acceptable,'" Peck said. "I had to be very close to who they were as human beings. To show that they did not only fight, but they lived through it. They took decisions that were dangerous for them. They lost everything. They were poor, although they could have lived the big life or become intellectual without the suffering. Young people react to that, because it makes everything seem changeable."

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Jenny Marx (Vicky Krieps), Karl (August Diehl) and Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) in The Young Karl Marx Agat Film / Velvet Film / The Orchard photo: Frederic Batier

Arriving at this message hasn't been easy. "There's a reason why there's been no other film about Marx in the Western world, ever," Peck said.

For a decade, Peck has been working to bring Marx to the screen, but funding proved difficult to assemble, even in Europe. The filmmaker was always wary of the ways a money-dependent, capitalist medium might compromise one of its greatest critics. "It's an incredible medium, but it's hard to find the right way to use it, without being used yourself. I'm very conscious that if I make a film in Hollywood, Hollywood is asking very precise things of me."

"I'm trying to go back to the fundamentals," Peck said. "When you read an important book like the Communist Manifesto, it was a book written for workers in a very simple way so they can understand their life and their struggle. When you read the first chapter, it's exactly a description of what's happened in the last 30 years. The expansion of capitalism. The total craziness of speculation. The fact that it will invade the whole planet. That's exactly what happened. So it's important to know your history. Otherwise you're just a puppet following the next populist who promises you paradise."

The Young Karl Marx is in theaters now. Read our full review on Newsweek 's gaming and geek culture nexus, Player.One.