THE FRENCH REVOLUTION is a subject whose innumerable contradictory messages ultimately overwhelm one another. Like the chemical elements in the hands of a skilled chemist, events of the years 1789-1801 can be combined in different ways to create wholly distinct products. A modern day radical could discern in the fall of Maximillien Robespierre the lesson that only unwavering idealism and relentless persecution of reaction can sustain a revolution; a moderate could claim that only the tempering of justice with mercy can save a regime from overthrow.
Danton the latest film by Andrzej Wajda (Man of Iron), sees the upheaval from the moderate perspective. Wajda retells the familiar story of Georges Danton, a popular Parisian killed by the revolution he helped create. Danton's attempt to slow down the ruthless waging of the revolution threatened Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, who engineered his execution. But as Danton predicted, the Committee's end was also imminent.
What stands out on the film's surface is the irreconcilable contrast between the characters of Danton and Robespierre. The enormous, energetic, during Danton (Gerard Depardieu) stands worlds apart from the small meticulous, cautious Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak). Danton likes to drink and carouse; Robespierre is an asexual puritan. Yet more important than their personality quirts is what each man represents. Danton stands for mitigation, for human goals over abstractions. He controls for the moment public opinion. Robespierre ironically speaks for entrenched power for Spartan obedience to the revolution. He wields the machinery of the Terror. When these two Titans clash, all of France shakes.
Depardieu who triumphed in last year's The Return of Martin Guerre brings vitality and commanding presence to his character standing both figuratively and liberally above the Phrygian bone tied revolution Aries who surround him. His gruff manner endears, while Pszonisk's formality chills. One sees easily why crowds would flock to the moderate Danton. Still, Wajda makes clear the appeal of authority; Robespierre offers an ideal worth living and dying for and losses into the deal the coercive force of the guillotine.
Pszonisk creates a character as compelling as Depardieu's. His Robespierre is racked by doubts from the start jealous of Danton's popularity and power, yet willing to sacrifice all for the revolution. Pszonisk's careful acting and studied manmannarisms, as well as his fully convincing feverish fits of illness and anguish add wonderful dimensions to Robespierre. We are fully prepared for his pathetic final scene of self discovery as he realizes he has forsaken the goals of the revolution, and the words of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen echo in his head as a bitter condemnation.
Wajda constructs the contest of the duel between these two remarkable men with admirable skill. He sticks closely to historical detail, even mentioning Robespierre's illness in the month prior to Danton's return to Paris and using Robespierre's actual words in the deruncistory speech he delivers before the Convention. Only rarely does his scene setting tend toward excess or degenerate into same dropping as in Robespierre's visit to the studio of Jacques Louis David, where the great artist is finishing his famous "Death of Marat."
Even more important than actual historical reproduction is Wajda's ability to capture the feel of the age the grime of street life and bread lines, the sense of urgency haunting politicos on all sides of the spectrum, and the pervasive paranoia of a society in lethal flux. Wajda brings forth all the weapons in this director's arsenal, from a droning soundtrack to claustrophobic camerawork, to brilliant contrast between dark night and the torches of the security police. He succeeds masterfully in conveying the dreadful anxiety of living in a totalitarian regime. For if the government of the Terror lacks the 20th century's technological tools of surveillance, it nevertheless aspired to set neighbor spying on neighbor, and to make public what had previously been private, perhaps the essential aim of totalitarianism. Sacrifice to the cause, submission for the greater good were the Terror's ideals.
To its significant credit as a historical film Danton brings forth the contradiction interest in the Revolution. Robespierre stresses Egalite, Danton prefers Liberie; Robespierre will use any means to meet his goals, Danton will practically reject the revolution if he can secure passes and prosperity for the common man. Happily, Wajda refuses to interpret Robespierre's section Glacial idealist or self serving demagogue, Wajda won't say. On the other hand, he does edit out some of Danton's flaws, barely mentioning his constant philandering, his willingness to accept bribes, and what may have been a just for power. Indeed, Danton is almost a retelling of the story of Christine Jerusalem, with a triumphal entry into the city a passion a trial with criminals, renunclation by followers, and ritual murder. Wajda of course did not create these events in Danton's life, but his recounting stresses them.
THERE CAN BE LITTLE QUESTION as to why Wajda, a polish director with Polish interests, chose a French historical subject, and made his movie as a co-production with a French studio. The obvious parallels between France in 1794 and Poland in 1983 allow Wajda to commitment on the Polish crisis while ostensibly dispassionately examining a 200 year old incident. Indeed, more puzzling given Wajda's reputation as a Solidarity apologist, is the Polish government's support of the production through Film Polski. Not surprisingly after seeing the final version the Polish authorities decided to postpone indefinitely the film's opening in Warsaw.
The too close fit between the story and Poland's current convulsions actually presents the film's greatest problem. One has the nagging sense that the image on the screen is Gdansk or Warsaw, retracted by Wajda's lens to look to Paris. And rather than heightening the film's urgency, this imparts the slightly bitter tests of propaganda, setting the viewer on the defensive. Wajda goes to far as to cast French actors at the Dantonist "indulgent" and poles as the hard line Jacobins such as Robespierre and St. Just, the film's real villain. Pszoniak even bears an unfortunate though surely coincidental resemblance to Wojciech Jaruzelski.
Although Wajda denies making Danton in response to the events in Poland, it is impossible to forget his political background and decline to read between the frames. When Danton declaims. "Without bread there is no justice, peace or law," or when he tells Robespierre. "Come back to earth I have the only power the street," how can one not hear the echo of Lech Walesa? Like Walesa, Danton is an orator, a revered leader, a man too busy for effete manners a man of the people.
Danton's impact is lessened when the film is robbed of its university Nevertheless it is an important thoughtful meditation on revolution and unfliacting idealism. Wajda's humanism ultimately transcends national interests and to tyrants everywhere he sends a vivid reminder that within four months of killing Danton Robespierre too was sacrificed to that implacable god, the revolution.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: December 23, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the first name of the Polish anti-communist leader Lech Walesa.