Among the great Polish filmmakers—Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Agnieszka Holland, Roman Polanski—Andrzej Wajda stands out as the one most concerned with national identity and memory. Of course his large body of work also includes films that are more psychological and romantic in nature, such as Innocent Sorcerers (1960) and Maids of Wilko (1979), but his international reputation rests on his striking and profound portraits of Poland’s public life and history, from his fifties War Trilogy—A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds—to his most recent film, Katyn (2007), depicting the systematic Soviet massacre of fifteen thousand members of the Polish officer corps during World War II.
While most of his films depict contemporary Poland or the tragic, formative World War II years, Wajda has also made a number of films set in the more distant past, including his epic about early nineteenth-century Poland, Ashes (1965), and the controversial Promised Land (1975), which recounts the cancerous growth of late nineteenth-century Lodz into a booming industrial city. Danton (1983), on first glance, might seem to be one of these straightforward period films, and, strangely, not about Poland at all. But in fact, Wajda’s tale of the battle between two of the French Revolution’s titanic figures, Danton and Robespierre, is an intense political allegory on the futility of violent revolution, with clear parallels to twentieth-century Poland.
The film was based on the play The Danton Affair, by Stanis?awa Przybyszewska, first performed in 1931. Przybyszewska was a Communist whose sympathies lay with the radical Robespierre. Wajda revived the play in 1975, but he turned it on its head, making a hero out of the more moderate Danton. By 1980, the high point of the Solidarity liberation movement, he had arranged to make his version of the play into a film, a Polish-French coproduction with Gaumont. Studio scenes were to be done in Poland, while location scenes were to be shot in France. Martial law was imposed on December 13, 1981, however, in a coup directed by the Soviet Union: General Jaruzelski was installed, Solidarity outlawed, communications cut, a curfew introduced, and production in Poland became impossible. The whole project was then transferred to Paris, with Wajda taking some of his Polish actors, including Wojciech Pszoniak, who plays Robespierre, and a small group of co-workers. As a result, Wajda, this most Polish of directors, was forced to become an émigré, only returning from exile in 1989, when the Jaruzelski government fell. (He went on to receive his adopted country’s highest film honor, the César, for best director in 1983.)
Danton takes place in the spring of 1794, almost five years after the fall of the Bastille and immediately following a period when the revolutionary government, facing internal enemies, conspirators, and the advance of foreign armies on French territory, created the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal to repress its enemies and raise additional military forces. Robespierre and Danton became the Revolution’s leading figures, and huge numbers of suspects were arrested and executed, including Marie Antoinette and the liberal-thinking Duc d’Orléans, during what became known as the Reign of Terror.
But the Revolution began to turn on itself, with Robespierre gradually gaining ascendancy over Danton and establishing dictatorial control through the tribunal and the committee. Robespierre believed that “terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible,” while Danton and his faction gradually turned against the Terror and the dictatorship. Soon after the committee had eliminated the extremists under Jacques-René Hébert (an atheist and proponent of the working class), it turned on Danton and his faction, the Indulgents.
Wajda barely touches on these historical facts, however, except for Danton’s execution, focusing instead on the conflict between Robespierre and Danton. We are presented with Gérard Depardieu’s passionate, gesticulating, anarchic force of nature Danton, who, with one last grand gesture, goes to the guillotine declaring that the people should be shown his head after the execution, and Pszoniak’s more intellectual, chill, and neurasthenic Robespierre. The hostility that the two men, both of them middle-class lawyers, feel for each other is as much personal as political. Depardieu’s Danton is bulky, sloppy, bombastic, and corrupt—a man who loves to eat, drink, and live in luxury. He once supported the execution of the moderate Girondists but has tempered his political positions and now wants to provide a normal life for the people. He asserts: “I’d rather be executed than be an executioner.” Robespierre is his opposite—sickly, slight, ascetic, and idealistic (“the incorruptible”). He sees the Terror as a revolutionary necessity (though the counterrevolution has by this time been suppressed), the only way to maintain the Revolution’s impetus, since he perceives it as having lost its will and energy.
Despite their profound differences, Robespierre, knowing that rejecting the popular Danton could be politically dangerous, wants to unite with him to consolidate the power of the committee. But Danton refuses to conciliate, and though a great deal of political maneuvering and speechifying follows, his fate is inevitable. A prime cause of Danton’s defeat is the fact that Robespierre is the superior political strategist and infighter. Danton is much too dependent on and complacent about the people’s adoration, and in turn does little to protect himself. In fact, he seems worn out emotionally, and politically careless and obtuse. He defends himself by appealing to the Convention (the Revolution’s legislative body), but it turns out to be fickle—Danton’s charisma, eloquence, and bravado are insufficient to save his or his followers’ lives.
Wajda’s reduction of the conflict to the two men and their various followers (who are merely sketched) jockeying for power may simplify history, but it’s dramatically effective and never turns into mere orating, with the two leads strikingly able to grant life and dimension to these outsize personalities. Of course the director’s sympathies clearly lie with the self-indulgent, utterly human Danton, a much more likable figure than the logical, austere Robespierre. But Wajda avoids the agitprop trap of turning Robespierre into a cardboard villain. He humanizes this rigid character and shows him to be a man left without a real political choice, oppressed by his feeling that the triumph of the Revolution is no longer possible: if Danton is not killed, the Revolution is finished; but if he is, it is also doomed. Robespierre also tries to save his pamphleteer friend, and Danton ally, the fragile Desmoulins (Patrice Chéreau), for whom he has genuine affection. He is far from a bloodthirsty man. It’s his main ally, the wild-eyed fanatic Louis de Saint-Just (Bogus?aw Linda), who has no qualms about calling for his opponents’ heads, and who attends to the sentencing and execution of Danton and the other defendants while Robespierre, looking sick and haunted, hides in bed, sensing that it has all collapsed—“The Revolution has taken a wrong turn”—and that his own destruction is imminent. Soon, of course, with the repression accelerating, Robespierre’s fears would be realized in the Thermidorian Reaction of July 1794, when several of the surviving leaders of the Reign of Terror were executed, including Robespierre and Saint-Just.
Wajda shot Danton, like his earlier, great anti-Communist film Man of Marble (1977), in a realistic fashion, with little stylization or virtuoso camera work. This decision was likely made in part because of his limited budget, which also caused him to eschew an elaborate costume epic, with scenes of mass turmoil and violence and thousands of extras, for a more intimate drama. There are two stylistically heightened scenes, however, recalling the symbolic and expressionist imagery of earlier Wajda films, such as Ashes and Diamonds, both set in the squalid revolutionary prison la Force, and both serving to powerfully bring home the sense of how repressive the Revolution has become. In one, Wajda’s camera tracks through the prison, which is packed with prisoners—men and women sleeping on straw—a veritable bedlam. In the other, the soundtrack an ominous Babel of murmuring voices, an unshaven, worn Danton and his fellow defendants are paraded past vicious, barking police dogs and penned-in prisoners, who climb the bars, calling out and cheering a reflexively glad-handing Danton. One prisoner, however, rages at Danton that it’s only justice that the tribunal’s creator is dying at the hands of his own creation.
The prison scenes, and much else that takes place in the film, have been interpreted as a direct analogue to Poland in the 1980s—Danton as Wa?esa, Robespierre as Jaruzelski—though Wajda tries to deny the association. Still, even more generally, so much of what is depicted can be seen as prophetic of how later totalitarian governments ruled, including Robespierre’s use of the secret police and informers to intimidate a restive public and arrest dissenters; the extraction of confessions of nefarious plots from Danton’s followers; and a show trial where normal procedures are suspended and Danton is stopped from defending himself or calling witnesses. There is also a striking sequence where Robespierre, wrapped in the robes of Caesar while posing for a heroic portrait by the painter David, tells him to delete one figure, a man he has condemned, from a painting of the Revolution’s early leaders—like Stalin erasing Trotsky from the history of the Russian Revolution.
Wajda’s dark, complex vision of the French Revolution is clearly articulated by Danton during his trial: “Like Saturn, the Revolution is devouring its children”—the fury of the Revolution unleashed obliterated its ideals. Wajda had seen the postwar dream of political transformation in his native Poland turn to ashes. In Danton, the vanquished hero/antihero may go to the guillotine, but if there is political hope, it lies in his extremely flawed humanity, not in the ruthless idealism of Robespierre.