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

Director Raoul Peck attends the <em>The Young Karl Marx</em> press conference during the 67th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin.
Pascal Le Segretain
Getty Images
Director Raoul Peck attends the The Young Karl Marx press conference during the 67th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.