Among the great Polish filmmakers—Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Agnieszka Holland, Roman Polanski—Andrzej Wajda remains unique in the way he has explored in his films the tortuous path his nation had to take. The question of her national identity: what sort of Poland do the people want in the post war produced the Ashes and Diamonds a classic. Between his fifties war trilogy and his most recent film, Katyn (2007) we have Danton a minor classic where the themes do find echo in what was taking place in Poland.
‘The film was based on the play The Danton Affair, by Stanisława 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 co-production 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.)’(Quoted from Leonard Quart/Criterion Collection news)
Wajda’s tale of the struggle between two factions spearheading the French Revolution is not an isolated event. Political fall out of an ideal produces factions and we see it in the solidarity movement and in the soviet backed government of General Jaruzelski. This we saw in the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky for the mantle of Lenin. Beyond this parallel what was happening in Poland in the early 80s was altogether different. Danton and Robespierre represent two factions, one moderate and the other all out radical just as their personalities are opposites to one another. Danton is larger than life, venal and easy while Robespierre the lawyer from Arras is austere and chaste. Danton (Gérard Depardieu) and Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) were close friends and fought together in the French Revolution, but by 1793 Robespierre had become the ruler and in order to wipe out opposition he ordered for a series of mass executions that became known as the Reign of Terror. Danton, well known as a spokesman of the people, had been living in relative solitude in the French countryside, but he returned to Paris to challenge Robespierre’s violent rule and call for the people to demand their rights. Robespierre, however, could not accept such a challenge and tries to win him over to his side.
There is much more than a tacit understanding to the reign of terror at stake. While Danton realizes the path he had set out has gone off the rails the other is all the more for bloodletting. Danton knows from events played out around him Revolution has become like Saturn devouring it own children. Robespierre takes advantage of Danton’s vacillation to outmaneuver him and arrest him. Thus five years after the fall of Bastille it is the will of Robespierre, Saint- Just et al that overrides the voice of restraint.
There is a telling scene that takes place in the studio of Jacques Louis David where the dictator in waiting the incorruptible Robespierre is sitting for the painter. When he is handed a palm he refuses it since it reminds one of martyr’s palm. He also insists erasing his enemies from the group painting and it echoes Stalin’s purge of history of Bolshevik revolution. (In that famous photo Lenin on return from exile harangues people where Trotsky the organizer of the Red Army stands next to the podium. Stalin on taking control had him airbrushed from history albeit pictorially. )
Both factions hold however one component common to their cause. Both are maneuvering in the name of the people. Robespierre who, as Danton would point out at a crucial one to one meeting shrinks from all contact, – and in all probability had never laid, speaks of man on the street as matter of his right. Yet Robespierre who holds the trump cards says: ‘We want Danton’s death.’
Judge Fouquier: ‘I am not your private executioner.’
Robespierre the ‘incorruptible’ of course wants him to effect the order of the Committee just the same as ‘people’s executioner.’
It is an irony of all blood baths that the dictators unleash are in the name of the people.
The earthy ‘larger than life’ Danton and the puritanical Robespierre fight like whores for their favor.
Danton: ‘A political trial is a duel. If the government accuses we can accuse them.’ The idea is to create doubts in the minds of people. The same ploy the government also uses in making Danton and other ‘conspirators’ sit along with the criminal like common thieves and pimps. .
Themes, which figure in Danton, are both political and ethical and are timeless.
The irrefutable fact that Danton set up the Tribunal does not mean he was above that. The hero of August 10 was evidently consumed by his own creation and also took Robespierre within three months.
The trouble with revolutions is that you don’t control insurrection with words once the blood is drawn whether in the streets or in the bedchamber.
Danton whose voice was like thunder shaking the very dome but as essayed by Gerard Deperdiue could not raise it beyond a whimper. The same could be said of the film Danton.
‘In addition to Mr. Depardieu and Mr. Pszoniak, the excellent cast includes Patrice Chereau as Danton’s journalist-friend, Camille Desmoulins; Angela Winkler as Lucille Desmoulins, Camille’s wife who followed him to the scaffold; Boguslaw Linda, as Saint Just, and Roger Planchon, who is partciuarly good as Fourquier Tinville, who prosecuted Danton and his associates in a rigged trial’ (quoted from NY Times review. Wajda’s ‘DANTON,’ Inside the French Revolution by Vincent Canby; Sept 28, 1983)