Danton, a French/Polish film directed by the Polish director Andrzej Wadja opens in the spring of 1794. The Reign of Terror is reaching its crescendo. Éléonore Duplay, the landlady and probably lover of Maximilian Robespierre is teaching her nephew the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Robespierre himself is sick in bed. Outside, on the street, a carriage pulls up alongside a line of people waiting in a breadline. Five years after the fall of the Bastille, people are still hungry. Discontent is widespread, threatening to overturn the republic and bring back the rule of the Bourbons and the aristocracy. As the hungry French citizens discuss the reasons for their misery, the doors of the carriage opens to reveal the great revolutionary Georges Danton. He’s greeted with uproarious applause. We look up to see Robespierre watching the whole scene from his window. With him now is Heron, the chief of the secret police. They are planning to suppress the newspaper of Camille Desmoulins, an old friend of Robespierre who has been publishing pamphlets criticizing the Reign of Terror and supporting Danton. The stage is set for the implosion of the French Revolution.
Danton, which was a hit in France in 1983, also received a good deal of attention from American movie critics, mostly because they saw it as an anti-communist allegory, a re-imagining of Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law against Solidarity. Robespierre and his supporters are all played by Polish actors. My French isn’t good enough to judge whether or not they speak with Polish accents, but they are clearly meant to symbolize communist east. They’re anemic looking authoritarians determined to preserve the Reign of Terror at all costs. Danton and his followers, on the other hand, are all played by French actors. They clearly represent not only Solidarity, but the democratic, capitalist west. If Robespierre, Wojciech Pszoniak, is a cold-blooded Stalinist bureaucrat —- in one scene he has Jacque-Louis David paint over a revolutionary who had fallen out of favor and been guillotined — Danton, Gerard Depardieu, is a corrupt but likeable western-style politician who believes the Reign of Terror has gone far enough.
But Danton is no Moscow on the Hudson, Red Dawn, or Rocky IV. Wajda is not only a man of the left, if more social democrat than communist, he’s also a master of subtle, nuanced film making who managed to evade the Polish censors for decades. It’s only now, in 1983, under Jaruzelski, that he was forced to make a film in the west. While he’s clearly in Danton’s camp, Wajda does not film Robespierre is not a caricatured villain. Robespierre is a great man who rose to lead the revolution. His younger, and most fanatic henchman, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just tries to push him into an immediately arrest, but he resists. Camille Desmoulins is his old friend. Danton, whom he detests, is still a hero of the revolution and popular on the streets of Paris. What’s more, he still has some scruples about summary executions. The Reign of Terror itself, set up by Danton, was intended to prevent vigilante justice like the horrific prison massacred that had happened the year before. There needs to be a catalyst.
When that catalyst comes, we can almost see Robespierre’s point. Robespierre has arranged a meeting with Danton. He wants to urge Danton to call off his agitation against the Committee of Public safety, to implore upon him that the revolution is still in danger and that authoritarian measures are still justified. Danton, a great, bear of a man has contempt for but still envies his Robespierre’s incorruptible devotion to the revolution. He prepares a feast, a rich, voluptuous spread designed to test his rival’s self-control. Remember, people on the streets are hungry. Robespierre passes the test with flying colors, turning up his nose in disgust at the decadent, aristocratic banquet. Indeed, 30 years later, after neoliberalism shock treatment has made a few oligarch’s wealthy and impoverished the vast majority of people in Poland and Russia, Wajda’s film takes on a nuance it might not have had in 1983. Danton protests that the people have no bread, but he never quite explains how he will alleviate the misery of the Parisian streets. At least Robespierre is consistent. Stay with the Reign of Terror. Break the back of the aristocracy once and for all. Danton’s populism, which may have evoked sympathy in 1983, now evokes suspicion. There he is, an East European oligarch in the making. Your inner Stalinist almost shouts “defend communism and Jaruzeski against George Danton and capitalism.”
Robespierre is under no illusions what executing Danton will mean. The logic of the revolution dictates that he will follow him to the guillotine shortly thereafter, which Danton predicted, and which, indeed, came to pass. There’s something noble about the pale, withered Robespierre. He has the integrity to defend the revolution to the end, even if in the end it meant his end. Is it fanaticism, or is it heroism? Perhaps it’s a combination of both. Danton, which in 1983 read like an attack on communism, now almost reads like an elegy.