There's a pivotal scene in 'Danton', Andrzej Wajda's 1983 cinematic analysis of the French Revolution, where the eponymous figure explicitly states what the priority of the nascent First Republic should be: 'Without bread, there's no law, freedom, justice'. Liberation movements everywhere, please, take note.
'Danton' is not just a film. It is also an excellent dissection of the politics in end-of-18th-century France at a time when Jacobins and Girondists tussled for power. And at the centre of this conflict lay the popular and pragmatic Maximilien Robespierre against the more down-to-earth and fallible Georges Jacques Danton. The plot focuses on the Reign of Terror, a period during which many so-called enemies of the state were tried and executed in public. Upon his return to Paris from his country retreat Danton finds that rumours about a possible conspiracy led by him against Robespierre have spread; a charge which, if proved, will send him straight to the guillotine. After unsuccessfully pleading directly with the man whom supporters call 'The Incorruptible', Danton realises that his only hope lies in convincing the National Convention that he is not a plotter, yet, at the same time he can't agree with the bloodshed unleashed by Robespierre and his henchmen. Then, in a moment of pure cowardice, the revolutionary tribunal passes a law whereby if a prisoner is considered to behave in a disrespectful manner towards the Convention, he or she can be sentenced immediately. Needless to say, Danton disobeys the unfair decree and pays with his life.
It is thought that Wajda chose to make this film as an allegory to what was happening in his native Poland at the time. The Soviet Union had just sent troops (again!) to Warsaw and martial law had been declared. Whether that was his motivation or not, the truth is that he took liberties with historical facts.
For a start, there's hardly any evidence that the conversation between Robespierre and Danton (clip below, in French with English subtitles) took place in reality. Both men avoided each other as much as they could. Also, Wajda's depiction of Danton as a 'man of the people' contrasts with more veridical accounts of his excesses and privileges. However, the role does suit a young, thirty-five-year-old Depardieu who, at the time, had more films under his belt, including 'Novecento' by Bernardo Bertolucci, than candles on his birthday cake. For a master-class in acting, click here (in French, with no subtitles). Rumour has it that the French actor went hoarse during filming and far from taking a break to recover his voice, he carried on, rending the scene linked above the emotional gravitas it needed (from 04:46 onwards). In addition to orchestrating that apocryphal meeting between the two leaders and portraying Danton in such a positive light, Wajda paints Robespierre (excellently played by the also Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak) as a bed-ridden dilettante instead of the morally confused demagogue he became.
Not that any of this 'artistic licence' matters, though, 'Danton' is still a terrific movie to watch, highlighting as it does the schisms in one of the most radical, social and political periods in history.
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 7th March at 10am (GMT)