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Relevant throughout the decades
An Overview of German and International Films on Karl Marx

Karl Marx – The Spectre Is Still Alive
© WDR/ARTE / Neue Artfilm

The oeuvre of films on Karl Marx is fairly accessible and easy to bundle into a series. It encompasses numerous biographical feature films and documentaries that merely reference or focus solely on Karl Marx.

By Dr. Alexander Schwarz

Compared to his imposing and intimidating stature as a historical figure, the oeuvre of films on Karl Marx is fairly accessible and easy to bundle into a series. There are only a handful of biographical films, and, interestingly, these are almost exclusively focused on the young Marx. The same could be said about the documentaries that directly or indirectly take up Marx’s life and work. Particularly instructive in getting to know the human being behind the name is Raoul Peck’s recent The Young Karl Marx (Der junge Karl Marx, FRA/D/GBR, 2017). The film’s achievement is not only to bring the historically overlooked figure of Jenny Marx back into focus but also the window it offers onto the biographical contexts surrounding Marx’s works.

The Young Karl Marx © Frederic Batier / Agat Film / Velvet Film

The Moor and the Ravens of London (Mohr und die Raben von London, DDR, 1969), from East German director Helmut Dziuba, stands out among the historical films. Taking up arms in the campaign against child labor and suffering in an English factory, Marx abandons his desk and together with Engels conducts a kind of field test of his theory involving a group of young, plucky youth whom he must educate (in the words of the Party).

In recent years something uncanny has grown inside of us

As Marx expert Thomas Steinfeld puts it, “One could say that history contradicted Marx. Very few still dream of revolution. Indeed, in recent years something uncanny has grown inside of us: we want to know how these constitutive forces cleave our world more with every passing day. This is the central motif of many documentaries and essay films that grapple creatively with a reevaluated Marx in the wake of the most recent financial crisis.

Jason Baker’s Marx Reloaded (D, 2010) – filmed at the height of the financial crisis – highlights Marx’s renewed relevance in London’s banking sector. Alexander Kluge’s monumental collection of essay films on the triumvirate of Marx, Eisenstein, and Capital, News From Ideological Antiquity (Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike, D, 2008) excavates under the “historical rubble” for “in no way outmoded analytical instruments” from Marx and Eistenstein’s hypermodern methods of “visual constellation.“

News From Ideological Antiquity –Marx/Eisenstein/The Kapital

Can Marx’s analysis of nineteenth-century Mancunian capitalism be applied to the digital economy? Those who go looking for a Marx primer in Stephanie Flanders’ Marx (Masters of Money, GBR, 2012) or Bob Godfrey’s comedic animated short film Marx for Beginners (GBR, 1979) will get more historical background and contemporary present. Finnish director Kirsi Liimatainen searches for a seemingly lost world of leftists, solidarity, and the spirit of resistance at an East German school that taught Marx to children from around the communist world. She seeks out her friends in Bolivia, Chile, Lebanon, and South Africa, asking. Comrade, Where Are You Now (D/FIN, 2016)? The refreshingly provocative Austrian documentary Free Lunch Society (AUT/D, 2017) from Christian Tod looks concretely for radical Leftist solutions the many unresolved social crises of our globalized modernity.

Free Lunch Society

Two brand new films made for German television as part of the celebrations planned for May 2018 offer another side of the man. The docudrama Karl Marx: The German Prophet (Karl Marx: Der deutsche Prophet, D, 2018) follows the title character (played by Mario Adorf!) on the travels he undertook late in life. His reflections on his myriad experiences are accompanied by Marx experts critically examining his legacy and impact. Christian Twente’s very entertaining and informative Karl Marx – The Spectre is Still Alive (Karl Marx und sein Erbe, D/FRA, 2018) highlights some different moments in Marx’s life with a particular concern on Marx’s transformative effect on modern China.

From classically Soviet biography to the absurd excesses of the cult of Marx at London’s Highgate Cemetery

Some other deserving films that could not be included in this year’s festivities: A Year as Long as Life (God kak schisn, SU, 1966) concentrates, in the classically Soviet fashion, on the turbulent era of European revolutions of 1848. The seven-part Soviet made-for-TV Karl Marx: The Early Years (1979) imagines Marx’s personal history during the “revolutionary phase“ as a grand costume drama.

Karl Marks – Molodye Gody (Karl Marx. The Early Years)

One of the few films to shine a spotlight on Marx’s wife is Michel Wyn’s Jenny Marx: The Devil’s Wife (Jenny Marx, la femme du diable, FRA, 1993). Peter von Bagh chronicles the somewhat absurd excesses of the cult of Marx at London’s Highgate Cemetery in A Day at the Grave of Karl Marx (Päivä Karl Marxin haudalla,FIN, 1984). Jürgen Böttcher’s A Place in Berlin (Konzert im Freien, D, 2001) – about two freestyle Jazz musicians performing at the city’s Marx-Engles Memorial – was not able to find a sponsor in East Germany but managed to do so after reunification.

Is a world without chains imaginable and possible?

The main concepts of Marxian universe—capital, property, labor, equality, crisis, revolution—are cutting edge. The question is not so much if Marx “was right” or if “Marxism is a failure” but rather if a “world without chains” is imaginable and possible. One must know what one is, according to Thomas Steinfeld in Master of Specters (Herr der Gespenster, Hanser Verlag, 2017). Rather than a riddle to be deciphered, the market forces and the relationships mediated through capital are to be understood. After Marx we cannot in good faith claim to lack the tools to contemplate our surroundings. Indeed, the films about Marx and the legacy of his ideas help to clarify the violence inflicted on human beings by money, the power of the economic and commodities, and about the crises that have become the backdrop of the everyday.

Some years ago, famous German painter Daniel Richter responded to a question about his favorite authors by announcing pointedly that bundled together adventure, entertainment, commerce, and a deep understanding of the world: Karl May, Karl Marx, and Carl Barks. During this year of celebration, let’s inspire both his critics and those rediscovering him.

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