Film Review: Danton (1983)

IMAGE: Georges Danton, French Revolutionary

Summary: A vivid portrayal of several of history’s greatest revolutionaries.

Rating: ★★

The 1983 film Danton actually came out of a project originating in the Polish Solidarity Movement.  It had been intended as a collaboration between a largely Polish cast and a French production company, Gaumont, which, because of the Soviet-led coup in 1981, was forced to move its entire base of operations back to Paris.  Despite such difficulties, the film’s “execution” is masterful.  The cinematography is flawless; even better is the soundtrack, which included bits used for Kubrick’s “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Wojciech Pszoniak’s portrayal of the tormented Robespierre, a man unyielding in his conviction that the Republic must be upheld, but whose ideals are hopelessly compromised by the Committee for Public Safety’s increasingly despotic regime of terror, is outstanding.  The figure of Danton, whose role is no less demanding, is presented as simultaneously the victorious hero of August 10, 1790 and the defeated martyr of 1794.  His character brims with masculinity, and yet retains an air of tragic fragility.  The cruel drama of Camille Desmoulins, the last member of the Convention to whom Robespierre had any sort of sentimental attachment, along with Desmoulins’ wife and young child, is depicted tastefully, without maudlin overtones.  Saint-Just, a minor character in the affair, is shown in all of his boyish revolutionary bloodlust.

If any objections were to be raised against the film, they would perhaps center on the outlandishly over-the-top representation of the Committee for Public Safety.  They are shown as wild-eyed, deranged sociopaths, sweating profusely beneath the deathly pallor of their lead-based foundation.  The monstrosity of the Committee is accentuated absurdly by one of the members shown in a crude, half-rusted, and primitive wheelchair contraption, with sudden and violent motions spinning along the way.

Opening of a Monument to Danton in 1919, RFSFR

Leonard Quart, in his official essay on the film for the Criterion Collection, explains the historical origins of the drama: “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.”  Quart continues:

 Still, even more generally, so much of what is depicted can be seen as prophetic of how later totalitarian governments ruled, including Robespierre’s use of the secret police and informers to intimidate a restive public and arrest dissenters; the extraction of confessions of nefarious plots from Danton’s followers; and a show trial where normal procedures are suspended and Danton is stopped from defending himself or calling witnesses. There is also a striking sequence where Robespierre, wrapped in the robes of Caesar while posing for a heroic portrait by the painter David, tells him to delete one figure, a man he has condemned, from a painting of the Revolution’s early leaders [the unfinished Tennis Court Oath] — like Stalin erasing Trotsky from the history of the Russian Revolution.

Yet, as Trotsky himself attested, Stalin was more a Bonaparte than he was a Robespierre.  Stalin did not even have half the revolutionary credentials of Robespierre, let alone a direct hero and leader like Danton or Trotsky.

I had seen the movie once before, but recently rewatched it at the excellent film screening accompanying Platypus’ Radical Bourgeois Summer Reading Group.

Danton’s famous speech to the Revolutionary Tribunal, in which he declares that “the Revolution is like hungry Saturn, devouring its children”

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