‘Young Marx’ biopic proves soporific
The Goethe-Institut, an inter- national organization that promotes the worldwide study of German culture, came to Brandeis to show Raoul Peck’s 2017 film “The Young Marx” as part of its continuing “Marx NOW” film series, a celebration of Karl Marx’s bicentennial. The event, held on Sept. 5 in Wasserman Cinematheque, saw the convergence of many groups from both inside and outside the Brandeis community, and was co-sponsored by the The Center for German and European Studies, the Department of German, Russian, Asian Languages and Literature. The program opened with introductions from both Prof. Sabine von Mering (GRALL), the director of CGES, and Karin Oehlenschläger, program curator for the Goethe-Institut in Boston. In her introduction to the film, Oehlenschläger explained that it was a passion project not only made to depict the life of its subject, but also to convey his ideas through film.
“The Young Marx” begins eerily: The camera fades in on a foggy wood, filled with peasants (Marx’s proletariat) collecting fallen branches off the forest floor. As the scene unfolds, Marx’s voice narrates off-screen, explaining the plight of the workers and how they are forced into performing “criminal acts,” which he does not believe are crimes. As he goes on, men on horses attack the peasants. These conditions, Marx (portrayed by August Diehl) explains, will only lead to a proletariat rebellion. The scene accomplishes precisely what Peck set out to do: represent Marx’s philosophy through cinema.
From there, the film takes a wrong turn, and coasts until the credits roll. What begins as an homage to Marx turns into a conventional biopic, laced with forced discussion of communist ideas. The movie practically yells these ideas at you; yet, no matter how loud it gets, it never bears a modicum of urgency. For a film that was made with the intent to visually depict Marx’s philosophy, it conforms far too strictly to conventions of narrative cinema, focusing on the microcosm instead of the collective. The principal characters therefore become a small bourgeois society in their own right, completely detracting from the desired message of the movie. In his emphasis on the central characters, Peck forgets to depict the crippled proletariat in a sympathetic way.
“The Young Marx” suffers from the same problem that many films about writers tend to have: It forgets to emphasize the importance of Marx’s work. Alternatively, you could look at another film that screened at the Wasserman Cinematheque, “Spotlight,” to see how such a task would be done right. “Spotlight” does not just depict characters trying to tell a story; the story they are trying to tell becomes the main focus of the movie.
The film features a serviceable supporting turn from the criminally under-recognized Vicky Krieps, who plays Marx’s wife Jenny. However, her on-and-off presence is not enough to buoy the film up to the point of making it watchable.
The movie is hard to sum up, because how does one realistically summarize the infinite? Truly, the film feels endless and aimless. Too many of the scenes are fixated on conversations between Marx and his comrades. Unsurprisingly, they agree with each other and any presence of conflict is sucked through their nostrils as they gleefully breathe the same air. Put simply, “The Young Marx” is painfully boring. Just ask the woman at the screening who literally snored through the final half hour.