Best known for political films such as Ashes and Diamonds and A Generation, Polish director Andrzej Wajda travels to 18th-century Paris in Danton -- but his politics remain firmly grounded in the 20th century. Much like his most recent film Katyn, which chronicled the murder of 15,000 Polish officers by the Soviets during World War II, Danton takes us to the morning after the French Revolution, when the monarchy has been toppled and the revolutionaries have no one left to fight but themselves.
It is 1794, five years after the fall of the Bastille, an epoch known as the Reign of Terror. Marie Antoinette has already lost her head, and the new government faces both threats from foreign armies and internal conflicts that could unravel the very fabric of the French Revolution. Georges Danton (a fiery Gerard Depardieu) and Maxililien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak), once leaders of the Revolution, are slowly becoming arch enemies. Robespierre has seized control of the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal, using both to silence critics and control the country. The significantly more moderate Danton, who opposes using terror as a means of control, soon finds himself at odds with his former ally and the leader's merciless cronies.
Based on the 1931 play The Danton Affair by Stanislawa Przybyszewska, which heaped its sympathies on Robespierre, Wajda changes protagonists to focus on the titular character. While Depardieu plays him as a boorish slob, Danton's passion for liberty and justice is undeniable, especially in the scenes where he shouts until hoarse in the trial for his life. In a clear counterpoint, Pszoniak portrays Robespierre as a sickly, chilly politician who has become so lost in his own cause that he has sacrificed his humanity.
The bulk of the film is devoted to the philosophical question that divides Danton and Robespierre: Is terror a revolutionary imperative? Danton is full of talk and debate, with many great moments of rhetorical ardor (especially by Depardieu, who emphasizes Danton's use of charm and eloquence to save himself and his supporters). Unfortunately, once he rejects Robespierre’s offer to consolidate, Danton’s fate is all but sealed. Despite the protagonist's arrogance, it is obvious that Wajda has cast his sympathies with this tragic man. That isn’t to say the director portrays Robespierre as completely inhuman. The powerful leader tries numerous times to appeal to Danton and even save Camille Desmoulins (Patrice Chéreau) -- a famous journalist and an architect of the Revolution along with Danton and Robespierre -- from the guillotine from his more bloodthirsty allies. As Danton and the others are executed, Robespierre hides in his bed and mutters, “The Revolution has taken a wrong turn.” (Although we don't see it in this film, he will be killed months later in the Thermidorian Reaction.)
During the filming of Danton, Wojciech Jaruzelski, a Communist general who helped the Soviet Union surpress Polish anti-communist insurgents, was elected as Polish Prime Minister and imposed martial law. Jaruzelski proceeded to ban Solidarity, the first non-communist trade union in Poland. Pro-Solidarity Wajda and his crew fled to Paris to finish the film (many of the actors, including Pszoniak are Polish) after his production company had been shut down. Wajda would only return to Poland in 1989, when the Jaruzelski government fell. The film has “been interpreted as a direct analog to Poland in the 1980s -- Danton as Walsea [co-founder of Solidarity and eventual Polish president], Robespierre as Jaruzelski,” writes film scholar Leonard Quart. “So much of what is depicted can be seen as prophetic of how later totalitarian governments ruled, including Robespierre’s use of secret police to intimidate a restive public and arrest dissenters and a show trial where normal procedures are suspended and Danton is stopped from defending himself or calling witnesses.”
Much like Katyn, Danton is a film about the day when the dream of revolution ends and its deeply imperfect reality begins. Danton and Robespierre both fought against the tyranny of the French Monarchy only to create a society that continued to persecute and murder its citizens. As Danton is led to the guillotine, the Revolution has consumed its ideals and become its own political machine. This destruction of humanity through totalitarian governments would continue throughout Europe (and much of the rest of the world) as history marched on, making Danton, unfortunately, still relevant today.