Saturday 16 June 2018

Thoughts in Progress

In the The Young Karl Marx August Diehl smirks a lot. He displays a smug smile when he meets his future comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels. It is there again when he takes on the apocalyptic- and evangelically-sounding rabble-rouser Wilhelm Weitling. And we come across Marx’s scornful expression again when he confronts a rich mill owner, friend of Engels’ father, on child exploitation. That such a dialogue-rich movie contains such strongly-conveyed facial messages speaks volumes about the quality of the direction, script and performances.

Whereas in I am Not Your Negrodirector Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated, James Baldwin-inspired documentary, the film-maker  uses the late civil rights movement writer’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House to put contemporary US society in the dock, in the The Young Karl Marx, he injects both Marx and Engels with a dose of much-needed humanity. The script suits Diehl’s bruising Marx and Konarske’s arrogant Engels, both of whom have plenty of scores to settle. Rounding up the leading roles are two actresses who rise up to the challenge posed to them even if their contribution is not as evident as the men’s. On one side we have Vicky Krieps, who was last seen poisoning Daniel Day Lewis (admittedly, with his consent in the end) in Phantom Thread, in the role of Jenny Marx. Although here the Luxembourg-born actress seems to play second fiddle, there’s still fierceness in her performance as a staunch defender of her husband’s ideas. On the other side we have Hannah Steele, she of Wolf Hall fame, as Mary Burns, Engels’ lifelong partner and a working-class, Irish woman who adopts both Marx and Engels’ ideas as her own.

The elephant in the room is the theory both thinkers come up with. Whilst Engels acquires first-hand knowledge of the conditions of the English working-class (chiefly with Mary’s help), Marx is busy polishing up his ideas on the inner workings of capitalism. Their findings are valid but their solutions controversial, and sadly history has not been kind to these men’s communist- or socialist-driven agenda (it is always amusing to find a group of western intellectuals locked in a verbal brawl over which system is the better antidote to modern-day capitalism).

In believing that the way to accelerate the demise of capitalism and usher in a new equalitarian society was by transferring power from the ruling elite to the working class, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels created unintentionally a virtuous oppressed Other. This oppressed Other was cast in an angelic and almost-perfect light. Nuance went out of the window, along with the power of the individual.

To be clear: the underage children slaving away in coal mines were real, the poor families with barely anything to eat and in constant fear of eviction were real and the workers deprived of their own rights and voice were real. It is just that the solution to their plight was not and should never have been Lenin, Stalin, Mao or Fidel. When these leaders introduced their own version of socialism, the last thing on their minds was that oppressed Other. The irony was that they used the nuance-free image created by the followers of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and manipulated it for their own power-grabbing purposes. This was not Marx or Engels’ fault, any more than the writer(s) who cobbled together those first passages of the Old Testament are to blame for the current situation with abortion in Ireland. Socialist dictatorships’ first step when they come to power is to wipe away any kind of joyful expression that does not match the incoming government’s revolutionary zeal. And if that includes self-satisfying, smug smirking, so be it.

What, smirking again, Herr Marx?

© 2018

Monday 4 June 2018

Thoughts in Progress

I went to see a Polish movie recently at the ICA. It was called “Beyond Words” and at first sight it dealt with an issue close to my heart: a father-and-son relationship. Yet, as I thought about the feature and peeled the layers off it after I left the Institute of Contemporary Arts, I realised that there was an overarching theme: immigrants and how they see their host country. And how their host country sees them, which is just as important. Mirrors do talk back.

Michael is a successful Polish-born lawyer. Yet for all his perfect-sounding German that makes him blend in easily in 21st-century Berlin, he is still looking for a real identity. This identity conundrum is further complicated when a man, claiming to be his father, turns up out of the blue. The two of them spend some days together trying to work out trust-related issues. Michael’s father, a Polish bohemian with very unorthodox ideas about life in general, brings chaos into his son’s otherwise orderly life. Whilst at the beginning we see resistance from Michael to this onslaught, little by little he begins to relent and finally surrenders to the only link he has to his native Poland. At the same time there is another narrative going on. One which is just as important as the father-son puzzle.  This subplot involves Michael and his employer and friend, German-born Franz. Asked by the latter to defend an African poet applying for asylum, Michael refuses on the grounds that the case is a lost one. In reality, it is Michael’s prejudices against the African man that stop him from taking his case on. In an ironic and sad twist, Franz reveals a hitherto hidden side of him. He doesn’t see Michael as an equal. Just like Michael doesn’t see the African man as an equal.

The film made me question my “Cubanness”. After 20-plus years in the UK, how much of Cuba is there still in me and how much of Britain has filtered through and settled in? As soon as I got home I scanned my new place for signs of “Cubanness”. Other than music and books, all I could find was a Cuban flag on the side of a jar of Cuban honey, kindly gifted to me by my friend D. For some strange reason I also suddenly recalled some lines from Paul Muldoon’s poem “Cuba”, in which he never mentions my country, but does allude to Kennedy, “nearly an Irishman/So he’s not much better than ourselves”.

This question of identity and belonging, to me, was the main theme in “Beyond Words”. The (almost) demand on an immigrant to conform to a pre-established concept of authenticity. This concept can be laid down either by the immigrant themselves, or the host country, or both, following a centuries-old unwritten agreement whereby we do not deviate from our pre-assigned roles. Yet, what happens when we do? This is exactly what makes Michael’s father run away from his son when the latter cracks a well-known Polish joke. The words are Polish and so is the wisecrack but the man telling them… what is he? Michael’s father is not the only person estranged from something or someone. Michael himself is estranged from his culture. I don’t think I have reached that point yet, nor do I think I ever will, but certain attitudes do set me apart from what would normally be labelled “Cuban culture”. And yet, isn’t there an incongruity in that very term? For what is culture but an ever-shifting, always-forward-looking phenomenon? Am I to be only salsa, sun and sand? Who decided that?

Later on as I fell asleep the last image that flashed in my mind was that of a pebble thrown with intent and purpose by a child across a lake. The stone left a choreography of uniformly-shaped outward-fanning ripples.

Who are you? Who am I?

© 2018


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