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A unique look at war in Philippe van Leeuw's In Syria and Raoul Peck's lesser-bearded The Young Karl Marx

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Hiam Abbas stars as heroine Oum Yazan (R) and Juliette Navis plays Delhani the housemaid (L) in Philippe Van Leeuw’s In Syria (Une famille syrienne).
Hiam Abbas stars as heroine Oum Yazan (R) and Juliette Navis plays Delhani the housemaid (L) in Philippe Van Leeuw’s In Syria (Une famille syrienne). KMBO

RFI's Rosslyn Hyams presents Cinefile. This month her special guest is director Raoul Peck whose latest film after the documentary on James Baldwin called I am not your negro is a militant feature film, The Young Karl Marx. Cinefile's September Film of the Month is Philippe van Leeuw's, war-thriller called In Syria (Une famille syrienne).




In Syria, also known as Insyriated and In Syria, is economical film shot in an apartment with only a few cautious peeks into a staircase and onto a small courtyard.

The family in the well-kept apartment is isolated. Not a film for sufferers of claustrophobia, it is effective in emotional impact, buoyed by intense sound.

Apart from the standard helicopter buzz, gunfire and mortar explosions inherent in most films about war, the characters are also seen listening intently to marauders moving ominously in the almost-empty building.

The family is headed by an elderly man, a father-in-law, played by Mohsen Abbas who director Philippe Van Leeuw says he imagined as being "an engineer, a teacher, nothing political. Through the window this wise man contemplates the entire life of a community."

However, it's Hiam Abbas as Oum Yazan, who comes across as the leader in her role as mother, daughter-in-law and significantly, as a neighbour.

Diamond Bou Abboud plays Halima, taken in with her baby by Oum Yazan after being bombed out of her place on an upper floor.

They make the most of their roles which dig deep into quotidien 'normality', the drama of vulnerability and the ruthlessness of war. Juliette Navis plays an essential role of messenger as the Asian house-maid who, in spite of water shortages, meets the demands of her demanding employer to keep the place and the everyone in it fed and clean.

Van Leeuw's reference to the contained and efficient classical drama of many cultures, draws on real-life experiences of his crew and actors, and on his own imagination to bring the Syrian war, and others, into our own spheres.


Raoul Peck cast August Diehl to carry the title role of The Young Karl Marx who comes across as likeable, kind and committed. Diehl's 20-something year-old Marx who is exploited by his employers and who lives from hand to mouth, is barely able to look after his family. The author of Das Kapital is however clearly committed to theory as against any direct action.

Peck's film revisits the origins of The Communist Manifesto of 1848 and recalls the conditions of factory workers and the poor in general the 19th century. It leads us to consider how far we've come since then, with two world wars in between, and consequently, how important it is not to slide backwards and lose the human dignity that has been fought for and gained.

Times were indeed hard in the mid-19th century. With smoggy brown and grey tones, mixed with the mists of London, Paris and Brussels, Peck sharply contrasts cruelty and need.

The intellectual Marx, along with his aristocratic-born wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps), and his mate Friederich Engels (Stefan Konarske), whose father owned factories in Britain and Germany, sparked major upheaval in Europe where the Industrial Revolution was steaming ahead. Peck shows the conviction and tenacity of the rich kids who vent their social conscience.

It is an important part of European history that has been exported and often perverted by opportunistic dictators. The film portrays a youthful and serious Marx engrossed in theory, in love, and also in partnership with an angry young Engels, the militant party.

Originally a television-film project for public-funded channel Arte, Peck will now likely get the benefit of both worlds for The Young Karl Marx.



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