August Diehl

Alexander Scheer, Hannah Steele, Stefan Konarske, Raoul Peck, August Diehl, Rolf Kanies and Moritz Führmann at the world premiere of ‘The Young Karl Marx‘ at the 2017 Berlinale.
Alexander Scheer, Hannah Steele, Stefan Konarske, Raoul Peck, August Diehl, Rolf Kanies and Moritz Führmann at the world premiere of ‘The Young Karl Marx‘ at the 2017 Berlinale. | Maximilian Bühn, CC-BY-SA 4.0

When fair-haired, blue-eyed German actor August Diehl came to play the lead in ‘The Young Karl Marx’ he was determined to embrace the reality of the revolutionary socialist as a young man. For Kino in Oz, film journalist Helen Barlow spoke with August Diehl.

 “It was interesting because there hadn’t been a film about Karl Marx and we only had the photo of him as an older man in our heads,” explains Diehl, 41. “Of course when Marx was young he had problems, he wasn’t always right and he was fighting. A little side-joke for me is that while his knowledge about capitalism was stunning, he always had money problems in his own life.”

Even if the film’s director Raoul Peck (I am Not Your Negro) would have been happy for Diehl to play Marx largely looking like himself, the actor insisted on transforming.

“We were fighting a lot, but in a good way,” Diehl recalls with a chuckle. “I wanted to change myself because Marx was a very Semitic guy, with black hair and dark eyes and skin. I was always discussing the scenes with Raoul and fighting over which language we would use. It was a little battle but this creates an awake state of mind and is good for Karl Marx.”


Like Diehl, audiences everywhere have been fascinated by the story of Marx’s wife, the former Jenny von Westphalen in the film.

German actor August Diehl at the 2017 Berlinale. German actor August Diehl at the 2017 Berlinale. | Maximilian Bühn, CC-BY-SA 4.0 “Jenny Marx came from a wealthy family and could have led a different life,” Diehl notes. “She recognised that this guy with little money could change the world. We wouldn't know Marx as we do if it hadn’t been for her. Or Friedrich Engels, because it was three people, even four, because Mary Burns, Engels’ long-term partner, was instrumental in helping them formulate their ideas. It was always a group of people; in fact there were so many people who came together like Heinrich Heine and Mikhaïl Bakounine from Russia. They all wanted to change the world but Marx was a little more intelligent than the others.”


Like Marx, Diehl is proficient in many languages. “I’m not as fluent in French as I am in the movie but it was nice to show a certain time where people were moving around and speaking different languages which again creates a very awake state of mind. It was about reaching people with words and language, writing books and making theories and speeches and it’s still like this. Nowadays a sentence from Donald Trump and the whole world is shouting and yelling.”


“There was always this picture of Stalin, Lenin and Marx, but Marx was a child of the 19th century and was much closer to the French Revolution than to any World War. I think it was a big mistake to look at Marx as the master of the Soviet Union or East Germany. It’s actually not what he wanted. He said that his system, the Communist system, does not really work in huge countries. But the Russians never wanted to hear that so they were blacking that out in the books. Communism maybe was working for a short time in Italy but only in little families and groups and with peasants. It probably did well for a short time in Cuba, but never in the Soviet Union or East Germany. In my opinion that was a misunderstanding of what Marx was saying.”


After supporting roles in Inglourious Basterds directed by Quentin Tarantino (“I’ve never met anyone who was so keen on language, he wrote the best dialogue ever”) and as Angelina Jolie’s husband in Salt (“It was very nice to work with her, she’s actually a very grounded woman”), Diehl now takes the lead role in Terrence Malick’s Ragemund, which interestingly is a US-German co-production. He plays Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian conscientious objector who refused to fight for the Nazis during World War Two.

"It was not so much about the English language because as we know the main character in Terrence Malick movies barely speaks,” Diehl chuckles. “But jokes aside, it was terrific working with that piece. It’s really very special. Terrence is making his own personal movies. He’s a spiritual guy; he’s very close to nature. He’s a bit like a painter and is a very decent and modest human being.”


“I have to do a theatre piece every year,” he says. “I think as an actor you learn as much in one theatre piece as in six movies, because in a movie actors are at the centre. There are many, many movies that are terrific with average actors or even non-actors. We’re just a part of it. I love the theatre because it belongs to you only, it’s your responsibility. But after one theatre work I want to make a movie because I want to change the air.”

The son of actor Hans Diehl and a costume designer mother, he moved around as a child living in Hamburg, Vienna, Düsseldorf, Bavaria and Paris.

“I was very formed by this as a child,” Diehl admits. “You don't like this so much because children are very conservative and want to have a stable background. I was of course suffering, always attending new schools and having to make new friends, but looking back I also have to admit that it creates an awake state of mind like Karl Marx experienced in Paris. You’re a bit wounded, you’re always a bit bleeding but you’re more awake. I don't know if it helped me or not but I dealt with it and I tried to see it as a good thing.”