Danton Movie Review
Georges Danton, the titular Parisian political firebrand who was put under the blade in April 1794, is played here by the incomparable Gérard Depardieu, and it may very well be one of the mighty, imposing actor's best performances. Danton returns to Paris to decry the Reign of Terror that, under the hand of the Revolution, had claimed countless lives and allowed the Committees to continue to do what they want without bowing to scrutiny or criticism. Instead, rather quickly, the one-time revolutionist was jailed along with several other politicians and accused of trying to bring down the Revolution.
Equally in focus is his erstwhile compatriot Robespierre, who is played by the great Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak. Robespierre was as instrumental in the Revolution as Danton, but he was the one ultimately given the power to lead when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette fell victim to the guillotine. As Pszoniak plays him and as the numerous screenwriters who worked on the script, including Wajda himself and the great Jean-Claude Carriere, envision him, Robespierre is the very model of power gone mad with fear, cursing "the people" as he lays in his sickbed in the film's final measures.
Upon its release, the film was both acclaimed and admonished. Many viewed Danton as Wajda's great allegory to Jaruzelski's imposing of martial law in Poland in the winter of 1981 in the hopes of suppressing the Solidarity movement, a subject the director would deal with head-on in Man of Iron. Wajda, at the time, refuted any claims that he made the film with that in mind, but it is now impossible not to see Danton as a more universal showcase for the pitfalls of democracy and the dangers inherent in trying to control people.
Desmoulins, a newspaper owner and close friend of both Danton and Robespierre, is played by Patrice Chéreau. Perhaps on purpose, Wajda never allows us to connect with the public, and Desmoulins is obviously their proxy, forever complaining about Danton yet following him with every stride. It has been argued, quite rightly, that Wajda gets the facts wrong -- an observation that bolsters the allegorical implications -- on what happened in the late 18th century, but what he understands is the power of great leaders and both what they instill and what they threaten.
Danton swears that Robespierre will share his fate soon and, per usual, he was correct. The Convention rebelled against the Committees that Robespierre led that summer and he, along with most of the men who condemned Desmoulins and Danton, faced the blade. Winston Churchill famously said "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." In its own way, Danton makes a hell of an argument for dictatorships and fascism. At least they're up front about it.
The Criterion DVD spans two discs, adding a 42-minute documentary about the film, also directed by Wajda, and an interview with him.