Haitian director Raoul Peck: ‘We’ve lost the big picture’

Still basking in acclaim for his visceral documentary on African-American social critic James Baldwin, Raoul Peck has turned his creative energies on another of history’s indispensable political minds — Karl Marx.

The project comes with the Haitian filmmaker at the peak of his powers, having won best documentary at Sunday’s Baftas — Britain’s version of the Academy Awards — for “I Am Not Your Negro,” his meditation on Baldwin’s racial philosophies.

The 64-year-old was still directing the Oscar-nominated documentary — his 15th feature-length release — when he began work on “The Young Karl Marx,” a dramatization of Marx’s early years that hits US theaters on Friday.

A cerebral retelling of the birth of communism, it also works as a high-minded bromance between Marx and radicalized manufacturing heir Friedrich Engels that flourishes in the pubs and cafes of 1840s Paris.

“The Young Karl Marx,” says Peck, aims at a realistic worldview in which complex problems require rigorous solutions rather than the short-term thinking the director sees in US President Donald Trump.

“Any problem you can throw at him, it’s an easy problem. It’s either the fault of certain people or a certain person and you can get rid of the person and the problem goes away,” Peck told AFP.

“No, it doesn’t work that way. That’s why we are in a time of populism, of simplification, of very individualistic reactions. It’s because we’ve lost the big picture.”

Before they were 30, Marx and Engles had helped alter society with the publication of their clarion call to the working class, The Communist Manifesto, one of the most widely-read and influential texts of all time.

– Rabble-rousing –

Played by German actor August Diehl (“Inglourious Basterds”), Marx is introduced as a rabble-rousing Young Turk in his mid-20s, recently married to the aristocratic Jenny von Westphalen, portrayed by Vicky Krieps (“Phantom Thread”).

In 1844 Paris they meet the dandyish Engels (Stefan Konarske), son of a wealthy German mill owner with factories in Manchester, who rebels against his father’s mistreatment of his workers.

Amid censorship, police raids and political upheavals, they preside over the development of the makeshift, disorganized labor movement into the most coherent revolution in political thinking since the Renaissance.

Peck, who co-wrote with veteran French screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer, is the first director to helm a film about the early years of a man known mostly through the iconic image of the elder statesman with the wild, gray beard.

Peck says the last thing he wanted was to make a film about a “somewhat surly but somewhat kindly, tired-looking Marx, speaking in English through his bushy beard in a vague political context while shedding a few tears at the successive deaths of his children, and cheating on his wife.”

Rather than relying on the glut of biographies and academic texts out there, Peck and Bonitzer researched their story by going straight to the horses’ mouths, via their characters’ mutual correspondence.

“Those letters are very vivid, very alive. They have humor, they are funny,” Peck told AFP.

“They of course speak about theory and history, but also about their friends, their next voyage, the difficulties of finding a home, organizing et cetera.”

– Legacy –

Born in Haiti, Peck was raised in the Congo, the US and France, serving as Haiti’s minister of culture in 1996 and 1997.

In 2001, Human Rights Watch gave him a lifetime achievement award for his work, most notably Lumumba (2000), which dramatized the rise and assassination of the Congo’s first democratically elected leader.

The realities of inequality — whether between white and black America or the proletariat and the bourgeoisie of 19th century Europe — has been a preoccupation of much of Peck’s work.

“People know today — even people from the right will admit — that if you are born in a poor family there is a very big chance that your life is going to be miserable,” Peck says.

“Even though they will say, ‘But if you work hard you will make it,’ take any statistic and you will see that it’s not true.”

Peck’s political awakening came as he was studying economic engineering at the Technical University of Berlin, where he became acquainted with Marx’s three-volume tome Das Kapital.

His first narrative feature since 2014’s “Murder in Pacot,” “The Young Karl Marx” takes little interest in Marxism’s regression into Soviet and Chinese-style communism, or the extent to which Marx’s doctrinal naivete can be blamed.

Asked if he believes Marx and Engels left a better world than the one they were born into, the filmmaker asserts simply that they “did their job” and that it is up to us to ensure their legacy.

“We can’t put the rest on their shoulders. They created the instruments for us to analyze the situation and, by the way, I profited from that,” Peck says.

“Thanks to their work I understood the world I am living in, so what I tried to do with this film is the same: to try to give to a new generation, in a form they can understand, the instruments for their own change.”

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