The Polish director Andrzej Wajda is probably on quite a few shortlists of Greatest Living Directors, especially after the rave reviews earned by his latest film, Katyn. He first came to my attention about 25 years ago when his highly-touted film about the French Revolution was getting a strong art-house release in the U.S. I first saw it on video several years later, but didn't take much away from it. Now Danton is part of the Criterion Collection and a new arrival at the Albany Public Library, so I decided to give it another shot.
Here, in France and in Poland, Danton was taken to say something about the Cold War and current events in Wajda's home country. It seemed easy to equate the French Reign of Terror with the martial law regime in Poland, while Danton as a dissident could be seen as an analogue of Lech Walesa, the Solidarity union leader. But in an interview for Criterion, Wajda clarifies that Danton was in the works long before the 1981 crackdown, and that Jean-Claude Carriere's screenplay is based on a Polish play written in the 1930s. The symbolism was not so obvious that the film couldn't be released in Poland -- even though the government did its best to bury it by emphasizing every little nitpick from European reviewers.
In any event any analogy between Danton and Walesa fails because Walesa, at that point, had never been part of his country's ruling clique. Danton had been. As Wajda's film points out, Danton had helped design the system that would condemn him to death. In one telling prison scene, the recent arrival Danton is denounced by a veteran prisoner who's happy to see one of the persecutors get his.
In Orphans of the Storm D.W. Griffith calls Danton "the Abraham Lincoln of France," on what basis I couldn't tell you. For the record, Griffith called Robespierre "the original pussy footer." Make of that what you will. To the extent that I know anything about the French Revolution, Danton struck me more as the Leon Trotsky of France, a thug himself who became sympathetic once outclassed by worse thugs. On the Criterion disc a critic calls Wajda out for whitewashing some aspects of Danton's career, but the director doesn't exactly portray his hero as an innocent, or even necessarily as a hero. But he seems to stand for something, and it's no accident that he's incarnated by Gerard Depardieu. For one thing, Wajda needed Depardieu to get French financing for his project. Second, he wanted a big, hulking, shambling Danton to contrast with his delicate Robespierre, a Polish actor whose performance, like many of the cast, was dubbed into French. Danton's sensuality is opposed to Robespierre's asceticism, though Depardieu's vices seem restricted to gluttony in this film. For story purposes, Danton claims to know what ordinary people want, contrary to Robespierre's dangerous idealism. But the moral of the film isn't really that simple.
Danton begins in 1794, with the Terror already underway and Danton himself already on the outs with Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. Members of the committee want Danton's head, but Robespierre proves more pragmatic at first. He understands (and we have to take his word for it) that persecuting Danton would alienate the bourgeoisie and the bankers and likely lead to an uprising against the Committee, if not the Revolution itself. He would rather defeat Danton politically without making a martyr of him. He would rather yet reconcile with his onetime colleague, but it has to be on Robespierre's terms. Danton has to give an unconditional endorsement to the Committee, but he won't. Danton is also capable of offering pragmatic advice to his fellow dissidents, often encouraging them to find ways to save themselves. He also thinks that pushing the Terror to far will endanger the whole Revolution, but his unwillingness to compromise with Robespierre after a tense meeting over a mostly uneaten dinner puts the two leaders on an irreversible collision course. Robespierre becomes convinced that Danton will move against him unless he acts preemptively in the matter he had only recently warned against. The survival of the Revolution as he understands it depends on crushing Danton.
France under the Terror was never as "totalitarian" as the Warsaw Pact bloc during the Cold War. There are always dissidents to heckle or challenge Robespierre whenever he speaks. But Wajda shows Robespierre taking on totalitarian traits under pressure, progressively more willing to throw aside the rule of law in order to eliminate Danton. Like later totalitarians, he can't just have Danton whacked, but must put him through a kind of show trial that serves to force the nation to affirm the government's interpretation of events. Elsewhere, we see him instructing the painter David to erase a disgraced revolutionary from a historical painting -- typical Stalinist tactics.
According to Danton, the Revolution is devouring its young. A 1980s audience would assume that Wajda means this diagnosis to apply to Communist regimes, but it's probably true for any revolution that goes beyond merely shucking off an old regime toward establishing a new order. Revolutionaries tend to equate dissent with counter-revolution. That was even true in the early U.S., though no one was executed for thoughtcrime here. Revolutionaries also tend to think of themselves as indispensable persons. Robespierre seemed to think that the Revolution depended on his leadership, and Danton clearly thought it needed his own more modest guidance. But a revolution that's become that personal has probably already jumped the shark. The point of Wajda's Danton seems to be that the personal incompatibility of Danton and Robespierre, as much as any conflicts over principle or policy, doomed the French Revolution to a deeper descent into terror.
But Danton can be enjoyed as a kind of political thriller without going to interpretive extremes. The drama derives from both protagonists' efforts to prevent a showdown that neither man fully desires, and from Depardieu's fire-breathing histrionics in the trial scenes. He's as much of a sell-out now as his American peers of a certain age, but he had his game on for this show. You can believe that Robespierre would come to consider Danton's mere existence a threat, because Depardieu looks like he could break the man in half. Wajda is no avant-garde director and presents his material in a straightforward and seamless narrative style. He handles the crowd scenes in the Convention and during Danton's trial quite smoothly, knowing that all he needs to do much of the time is let Depardieu rip. He also sells the guillotine as a huge scary thing, first seen covered in tarp at the start of the film, then being scrubbed lovingly in preparation for Danton's execution. Finally, he indulges in a little gore at the end. We see blood soak the straw under the guillotine, and a bloody stump of a neck after the blade has fallen. Danton asks that his own head be shown to the people ("It's worth it.") but Wajda doesn't spring for a fake Depardieu head. We only see the bloody trophy from behind. Some sinister soundtrack music from Jean Prodromides heightens the mood of foreboding throughout the picture.
This is basically a solid big-time art house film. You'll like it if you like Depardieu or you're interested in the French Revolution or political history generally. It definitely made me more eager to see Katyn if it hits the local art house.