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'The Young Karl Marx' Looks Inside The Mind Of A Revolutionary

Feb 25, 2018

In a new biopic from filmmaker Raoul Peck, the central character is a 19th century revolutionary who'd probably have plenty to say about the 21st century.

Peck's film, The Young Karl Marx, centers on the German philosopher, journalist and economist famously known for championing an economic system based entirely on uniform distribution of wealth. In 1848, Marx penned his most famous work, The Communist Manifesto.

But Peck's biopic tells the story of a Marx who has yet to enter the history books. It's 1844, and Marx is 26, poor, writing for a left-wing newspaper and already questioning the common thought of the time.

Marx finds his intellectual soulmate in Friedich Engels, a rebellious rich kid writing about the poor conditions of the working class in England. Together, they start a movement that provokes a social revolution.

Peck has tackled this subject before, in documentaries about the slain Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and, most recently, the African-American writer James Baldwin in the Oscar nominated feature I Am Not Your Negro.

"I made a film for now. I didn't make a film about the past," Peck said. "My intention with this film was to reconnect with what is happening today and to help an audience connect the dots."

NPR's Sarah McCammon spoke with Peck about his film.


Interview Highlights

On choosing the project

Both projects [I Am Not Your Negro and The Young Karl Marx] were a sort of response to the world I see around me, and not only here in this country but in Europe and in the Third World.

It's what I call the rise of ignorance, of confusion, where experts or scientists who have worked their whole life on any subject—climate change or new energy—can be shut down by somebody's opinion without having to demonstrate anything.

So, in that time I just wanted to give some sort of response and come back to what I call the fundamentals.

On the film's purpose

Well, it's basically to understand how our society functions—a society that is embedded in capitalism. And what Marx did is analyze this society, and today his analyses are even more urgent and necessary than before.

You can see like even the young kids from Florida right now who are protesting and asking for more gun control. They have understood the connection between money, between capital, between profit and that there are people who are capable of choosing the worst decision if it will preserve their profit.

So, that is something that Marx has written about, that how sometimes even the state puts itself at the service of the industry or profit-making industry.

On the process of writing the screenplay

It was about how to make it, of course, human. And what we decided to do was to write the screenplay not using big, well-known biographies or using the different Marxist interpretations.

What we did was use their correspondences, those incredible letters that they wrote to each-other where they were totally sincere, not only in their politics, in their work as economists, as journalists — but also they talk about life. They talk about their relationship. They talk about their anger. So using those correspondences makes everything much more closer to us and we understand what was fueling the life and ambition and the goals of those young people in the Europe of the 19th century.

NPR's Digital News intern Asia Simone Burns produced this story for digital. Marc Rivers and Ammad Omar produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We're now going to discuss a movie about a 19th century revolutionary who'd probably have plenty to say about current times. "The Young Karl Marx" is a new biopic from filmmaker Raoul Peck. It tells the story of a Marx who has yet to enter the history books. It's 1844. He's 26, poor, writing for a left-wing newspaper, already questioning the common thought of the time. Marx finds his intellectual soulmate in Friedrich Engels, a rebellious rich kid, writing about the poor conditions of the working class in England. Together, they start a movement that provokes a social revolution. Raoul Peck has tackled social issues before in documentaries about the slain Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and, most recently, the African-American writer James Baldwin in the Oscar-nominated feature "I Am Not Your Negro." Raoul Peck joins us now from our studios in New York. Thank you for speaking with us.

RAOUL PECK: Well, thank you for inviting me.

MCCAMMON: As we mentioned, your last film, "I Am Not Your Negro," was a documentary about the influential writer and thinker James Baldwin. But I can imagine that some viewers might still be surprised that for your next film, you decided to make what's kind of a bromance movie about Marx and Engels. Why did you want to tell this story?

PECK: Well, you know, both projects came up around the same time and somehow both projects was a sort of response to the world I feel around me. And it's what I call the rise of ignorance, of confusion, where experts or scientists who have worked their whole life on any subject - climate change or new energy - can be shut down by somebody's opinion without having to demonstrate anything.

MCCAMMON: I want to play a short clip from your new film, "The Young Karl Marx." And in this one, Engels has introduced Marx to a factory owner, and Marx does not seem to appreciate the business' working conditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE YOUNG KARL MARX")

AUGUST DIEHL: (As Karl Marx) If labor costs more, there'd be no more profits, therefore no more economy, therefore no more society. And where would a society without exploitation lead people like you? You would have to work, too. Wouldn't that be horrible?

MCCAMMON: Naturally for a film about Marx, it's largely driven by a lot of talk, a lot of thinking. That can be hard to make exciting on screen.

PECK: Yes.

MCCAMMON: How did you tackle that?

PECK: What we did is use their correspondence, those incredible letters that they wrote to each other, where they were totally sincere not only in their politics, in their work as economists, as journalists. But also, they talk about life. They talk about their relationship. They talk about their anger. So using those correspondence make everything more closer to us. And we understand what was fueling the life and the ambition and the goals of those young people in the Europe of 19th century.

MCCAMMON: What were you trying to draw out in this film?

PECK: Well, it's basically to understand how our society functioned, a society that is embedded in capitalism. And what Marx did is to analyze this society. And today, his analyses are even more urgent and necessary than before. You can see, like, even the young kids from Florida right now who are protesting and asking for more gun control, they have understood the connection between money, between capital, between profit and that there are people who are capable of choosing the worst decision if it will preserve their profit. So that is something that Marx had written about - that how sometimes even the state put itself at the service of the industry - or the profit-making industry.

MCCAMMON: Are you opposed to capitalism?

PECK: It's not a matter of am I opposed or not. It's a matter of this is the system we are in and we can see what kind of inequality it's generated. So the question is not am I for or not. It's how do we change that?

MCCAMMON: But hasn't this been tried before many times? I mean, Marx's ideas pervaded, for instance, the Soviet Union. We saw how well that worked out.

PECK: Well, that's exactly - it did not influence the Soviet Union. Marx and Engels would have probably been the first one to be shot. And that's why, you know, if you see "The Young Karl Marx," you know, they were Democrats. They were freethinker. And this incredible monster that was fabricated after the Russian Revolution has nothing to do with the ideas.

MCCAMMON: At the end as the credits roll, you show footage from more contemporary times. We see shots of John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Wall Street. Why did you decide to do that?

PECK: Because I made a film for now. I didn't make a film about the past. My intention with this film was to reconnect with what is happening today and to help an audience to connect the dot.

MCCAMMON: "The Young Karl Marx" is now playing in limited release. I've been speaking with Raoul Peck, the director from New York. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

PECK: Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.