Thursday, July 1, 2010

Andrzej Wajda's Danton

I wrote this paper for a European history class. I haven't edited it and I left out the footnotes. I don't think it's really my best paper, but I had fun writing it. It deals more with the historicity of the film in question rather than the cinematic qualities of it, and if you don't know anything about the French Revolution then it might be confusing.


When it was released in 1983, director Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton ignited a major conversation both in Europe and America about its historicity and its implications for the current political situation in Poland. Wajda was a Polish patriot making a film about the French Revolution, and many French critics attacked the film for distorting facts and being too critical of Robespierre. Others suggested Danton was meant to represent Lech Walesa, the Polish opposition leader, and Robespierre the Communist leader General Jaruzelski. In the end, both of these criticisms are unconvincing, and while the film does modify a few facts, it turns out to be an excellently researched and persuasive historical drama.

Danton opens with a long night shot in the rain, drawing the viewer through the guards at the gate and into Revolutionary Paris along with Georges Danton’s returning carriage. Danton, a great figure of the Revolution, has returned to oppose the Committee for Public Safety and their Reign of Terror. He is established in opposition to the other central character, Maximilian Robespierre, the head of the Committee, through several parallel scenes in the first part of the film. Each returns to the leadership of their faction from times spent away—Danton at home in the country, Robespierre in bed with a fever—and reassert control over their fractious allies. Each debates with their factions and convinces them to avoid violence for the time being, to avoid striking too soon. Each has a younger man who is an especially close friend and ally, Robespierre with the violent extremist Saint-Just, Danton with the idealistic pamphleteer Desmoulins. Aside from these similarities, however, the two men are diametrically different. Danton rides into town and is greeted by a crowd with whom he gladly shakes hands, while Robespierre is never shown meeting a conventional member of “the people” at all, unless one counts his barber. Danton is large, loud-voiced, and jocular, while Robespierre is stiff, precise, and stern. While Danton is exhausted and occasionally falls asleep at inopportune moments, he still exudes a warmth and vitality that makes him feel far more alive than the pale and awkward Robespierre. Their political aims start out similar—they used to be friends and allies—but soon it becomes clear that their ideals are as opposed as their personalities: Robespierre believes the Revolution must continue under the direction of Committee and anyone that gets in its way is a traitor who must be stopped for the greater good, while Danton regrets his previous involvement with the tribunal and calls for an end to the violence. When Danton refuses to give in, Robespierre has him arrested with most of his friends and given a fixed show trial. Danton speaks eloquently at the trial, appealing to the people to take back their government, but he is thrown out of the courtroom and convicted in absentia. In the end, Danton is executed, but Robespierre lies in bed, sick and terrified, knowing the Revolution has taken a wrong turn and the Terror is now out of his control.

When the film was released, critics praised its production values and performances, but many were skeptical of its historicity and political views. French Socialists, the ruling party at the time, generally regarded themselves “as the legitimate heir of the crowds that stormed the Bastille in 1789,” and they disliked any accusation that the Revolution produced evil. National Assembly president Louis Mermaz charged in Le Monde that the film “’lacks historical depth.’” Marcel Ophuls “argue[d] that Wajda no longer [had] any commitment to the aims of revolution.” In The Nation, Daniel Singer called the film “antirevolutionary” and charged that Wajda’s despair at the failure of Solidarity in Poland caused him to foolishly lash out at all revolutions, instead of understanding their need to exist even if they become excessive. It was also pointed out that Wajda had “written the masses out of any active role in history, portraying them in the film as mere political fodder for their leaders’ debates.” Others believed that Danton represented the Polish leader of Solidarity, Lech Walesa, who had been thrown in prison for protesting tyranny, while Robespierre was a caricature of the Communist General Jaruzelski who had imposed martial law on Poland. Nevertheless, the film won several awards, including the Cesar Award for Best Director, the French equivalent to the Academy Award. There also arose several right-wing critics to defend the films historicity, supporting its view of the Terror, as well as plenty of American critics who avoided the controversy and just praised it as a film.

The accusation that Wajda shaped the film to be an allegory of Solidarity has a basis in fact. Wajda was a prominent supporter of the Solidarity movement, and had made films in the past which directly praised Walesa. However, he based this film on a 1931 play by Stanislawa Przybyszewksa, which originally had Communist leanings and was very positive towards Robespierre. Wajda had “revived the play in 1975, but . . . turned it on its head, making a hero out of the more moderate Danton,” and planned to make a film of it before the Communist crackdown began. Indeed, because of the imposition of martial law, Wajda had to move his entire planned production to France, where he continued to work as an émigré until the break-up of the Soviet bloc in 1989. The Polish crisis was clearly on everyone’s minds when making the film, as evidenced by the behind-the-scenes documentary included on the Criterion Collection DVD, where several of the actors are asked what they think of the film’s politics. All of them mention Poland and martial law, but none believe the film is a straight allegory for that situation. Instead, they, along with Wajda, see the film as being about all revolutions in all times. According to Depardieu, “The question of freedom is always current.” Wajda wanted to comment on the Poland and the Soviet Union, but he didn’t wish to twist a historical tale into a narrow contemporary allegory, and most critics, upon seeing the film, agreed he hadn’t.

As for the suggestion that Wajda shouldn’t denounce the Terror, many historians disagree on the Reign of Terror’s significance and whether the Revolution was successful or not. Modern scholarship, especially among British and American historians, suggests that the Terror was just as horrific as portrayed in the film. Upwards of 16,000 people were guillotined over the course of nine months, and many of those executed were the very revolutionaries who had established the system in the first place, including Danton and Robespierre. The question whether the Revolution was worth this price is one of personal ideology and ethics, but the critics do have a point when they suggest Wajda leaves out information that gives clearer justification to Robespierre and the Committee. In making a 136 minute film, it is necessary to leave out a great deal of historical detail in order to maintain a coherent and interesting plot. Therefore, the fact that the Republic was currently at war both within and without of its borders is mentioned only once, and the Herbertist affair which all the principle characters were a part of immediately prior to the events shown is never mentioned at all. These are the two most grievous omissions, for they lend a better sense of the dangers constantly threatening the Republic that Robespierre and the Committee were facing, and suggest that they have good reason to be paranoid and harsh. However, while Wajda leaves these facts out, he never exaggerates the villainy of Robespierre, indeed makes him supremely logical and morally certain, and seems to expect a certain level of audience familiarity with the Revolution in the first place. Many names and events are referenced and tossed about very quickly in the film, and only those who have studied the era in detail will recognize the allusions.

Wajda’s depiction of the two leads is also surprisingly accurate. Danton was indeed large, garrulous, and intimidating—he was nicknamed the “’Gigantic Revolutionary,’ ‘King of the Revolution,’. . . ‘Creator of the Republic,’ ‘Cyclops,’ ‘Atlas of the party,’. . . ‘Hercules’” and “’His voice resounded . . . like a warning gun to call the soldiers to the breach.’” Robespierre was indeed “cold in his affections, and his taste [was] as fastidious as his dress.” Robespierre could not rabble-rouse the way Danton could; he preferred the well-prepared speech while Danton spoke off-the-cuff. One could make the case that aside for left-out details, Robespierre as depicted is almost entirely accurate. His ill-health, stern moralizing, impossible idealism, incorruptible image, willingness to give up a friend to the cause, abhorrence of wealth and corruption in others, and brilliant political maneuvering in the film all fit exactly the portrait of him drawn by British historians J. M. Thompson and Ruth Scurr. The deviations, if anything, serve to make him more sympathetic—he is shown to have grave doubts about the Terror and by the end of the film is ready to give up, knowing he has destroyed the Revolution, while in real life he continued on with his course. When he decided to attack Danton, he wrote Saint-Just a list of crimes, detailing not only “actions and associations during the early years of the Revolution which were innocent then but have now become criminal,” but also a host of tiny vices such as vulgar jokes, boorishness, disreputable companions, and odd remarks that could be interpreted as anti-Revolutionary. If the film had depicted Robespierre spewing out all these hateful little remarks, the scene would no doubt have overwhelmed all others in becoming emblematic of his innermost soul, and instead of a tragic, pitiable figure at the end, he would probably be seen as a hateful, shriveled soul who had lost all capacity for love in his bitterness. This would not have been a more accurate picture of Robespierre, for it would have been dominated by one scene and one action—an action which did not define his life.

Danton is a more difficult case than Robespierre. There are a great deal of historical opinions of him as well, ranging from the worshipful (Hillaire Belloc) to the highly critical (J. M. Thompson), to the downright hateful (Alphonse de Lamartine). As several critics pointed out, there is evidence Danton was available in shady financial dealings and may have taken bribes, but he is absolved of this in the film. The exact nature of these financial scandals, however, seem very unclear, based more on rumor than anything else. Danton did start out the Revolution a man of very modest means, but by the end was “spending money at a far greater rate than these means allowed.” He also defended his friend Fabre d’Eglantine (the inventor of the revolutionary calendar) to the end, despite Fabre’s proven guilt. However, he was not officially charged with wrongdoing in either of these cases; instead, he was convicted of “‘a conspiracy aiming at the re-establishment of the monarchy and the destruction of the national representation and the republican government,’” a charge that was obviously ridiculous. Wajda doesn’t attempt to deify Danton in his film, though. He presents Danton as a surprisingly ambiguous hero, a martyr to a cause who nevertheless failed to achieve his goals. There are hints in the film that Danton’s finances are suspicious, with both Philippeaux and Robespierre basically accusing him of war-profiteering, though Danton dismisses both of these suggestions out of hand. There are also clear indications that Danton drinks too much, eats too much, and isn’t getting enough sleep—he is clearly flawed. He is also given to bouts of uncontrollable temper and overstatements of his own power, though tempered with moments of quiet and tenderness. He appears almost unhinged in his meeting with Robespierre, who keeps his cool and maintains his moralizing. Ultimately, the question comes down to whether he intended to get caught or not. Is Danton a flawed politician, who in his arrogance assumes he can bring down the Committee with his own popularity? Or is he a noble idealist who willingly sacrifices himself in order to energize the people into taking back their government and ending the Terror? The film can be read both ways. Either way, it is clear that his death leads to the end of Robespierre, but it is unclear if this is the result of fatal infighting between political rivals or if the ideals involved meant something more.

In the end, it is the little details that make this film come alive as history. The titanic clash of political personalities is the centerpiece, but the surrounding action and minutiae make it feel real. Wajda sets up most new scenes with a brief look at various people and artifacts of the era, unimportant to the central plot, but an essential part of the fabric of the film, giving it an intensely believable setting. Wajda’s camera glides or pans past guards searching carriages, peasants waiting for bread behind a rope, children eagerly helping police to destroy a newspaper, vendors selling patriotic pins and Revolutionary prints outside the Convention, members of the Committee for Public Safety sleeping in their clothes in the hallway, and apprentices painting their first nudes under the supervision of the great painter Jacques-Louis David. Other details abound, from the way wigs never seem to stay on right, to the pictures on the walls, to shaving bowl with a cut out of one side, to the greetings of “Citizen” and “Health and fraternity,” to the cutting of the prisoners’ hair and shirts so it won’t hinder the fall of guillotine. The world Wajda creates is rich and alive, swelling with people and characters other than Danton and Robespierre. Most of the scenes and much dialogue are factual as well; from the speeches at the Convention to Danton’s last words. Even the Robespierre-Danton dinner has a strong basis in fact: They did meet to see if the other would compromise, but neither would and angry words passed between them. Robespierre refused to admit that any innocents had been guillotined and insulted Danton’s morals, while Danton accused him of excessive idealizing and sadistically enjoying the executions. When Robespierre left, Danton had tears in his eyes, and his name was added that night to the list of proscribed. Danton’s last speech at his trial has not been fully preserved, so it is largely invented, but it conforms closely to the style of Danton’s other speeches and can be considered reasonably accurate. Certainly Danton’s voice roared, he accused the jury of subverting the law, he laid out his own Revolutionary credentials, and he appealed to the people for justice. Perhaps most importantly, Danton allegedly did refuse to resist his arrest violently: “‘That means the shedding of blood, and I am sick of it. I would rather be guillotined than guillotine.’”

Andrzej Wajda’s Danton is an underrated historical drama that ought to be celebrated as one of his finest films. It examines historical issues with a practiced and well-researched eye, but manages to make the issues relevant to the modern world as well. Despite a few modifications and exaggerations, the film remains remarkably subtle and accurate, offering up several possible interpretations while remaining focused and compelling. Wajda succeeds in his goal of making a film about all revolutions in all ages. It is a pity there are so few movies that can recreate history like this one.

1 comment:

  1. I just saw this comic, and it's on the subject of Danton, so I just thought I'd put a link to it here. It's awesome, and she mentions the movie in the summary below, too! I also like JM Thompson's summary that she cites. It strikes me as quite accurate, encompassing the man much more thoroughly than our usual desires for black/white, hero/villain descriptions.