Director: Andrzej Wajda
Writer: ,Jean-Claude Carrière; collaborating with Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek, and Jacek Gąsiorowski
Cinematographer: Igor Luther
by Tory Maddox
I have a fairly superficial understanding of the French Revolution. I know there were tens of thousands of beheadings, the storming of Bastille, and Robespierre was the face of the cause. I had never heard of Danton and although I enjoyed the film it’s much advised that you check out the wikipedia page before watching (or better, take the free Coursera course), as I imagine it’ll create a much richer viewing. Allow me to summarize what I learned (mostly read from wikipedia).
Many historians consider Danton the chief proponent in overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the First French Republic. He has been accused of orchestrating the September Massacres, in which thousands of French prisoners were killed for fear that they’d join the monarchist forces in fighting against the revolution. He was Minister of Justice for the National Convention, which sought to reform the government. He supported the beheading Louis XVI, and eventually co-created a Revolutionary Tribunal that stripped the weapons from many in the masses in order to avoid any backlash for the September Massacres. The actual power of the government resided in the Committee of Public Safety, which had dictatorial powers that Danton supported and helped create, though he never held office at the CPS.
Opposite the Committee of Public Safety was the French National Convention that exerted further authority over the state, soon resulting in the Reign of Terror that would claim the lives of over 40,000 French Citizens. This led to the rise of political party The Montagnards, with Danton as their most vocal supporter. Danton hoped to move the Revolutionary cause back to a more moderate stance in order to appease possible foreign invaders. This put the French Convention at even heavier odds against the Committee of Public Safety (led by Robespierre), eventually pushing Danton into a corner as he had to defend his more moderate stance against the extremism of the CPS.
After various financial corruption and bribery accusations while Danton was attempting diplomacy with Sweden, he was arrested by the Committee with various other members. Because of Robespierre’s supreme dictatorial powers he was denied a fair trial, unable to even defend themselves in court, or to have witnesses testify on their behalf. Danton and the others were found guilty without even being present in court. They were sentenced to the guillotine and Danton was beheaded, his last words being “Don’t forget to show my head to the people. It’s well worth seeing.”
Coincidentally, as Danton attempted to warn, the government found Robespierre's pretensions disagreeable, and only three months later, he was also beheaded.
The film follows Danton (Gerard Depardieu) as he’s about to be imprisoned. For any fan of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, here’s a film for you. It’s gritty and real, with an ability to keep the narrative grounded rather than overly dramatic. Danton and his compatriots laugh and remain gregarious no matter the consequences of what they’re facing.
There’s an interesting exploration of ego and its operation within a revolutionary capacity. As the nation was fearing invasion and a complete failure of the cause, knowing that they were ushering in the modern era of democracy as their allies across the seas in American had done, you could feel both the electricity and the danger. The person who led the nation one day could just as easily have everything turned against him, beheaded the next. There are people lying in the streets, waking up, ready to do whatever the day brings, knowing they’re part of something special, similar to our own Founding Fathers. Except it’s the chaos and mass murdering that operates in the background that makes it so eerie.
BELOW: Robespierre's (Wojciech Pszoniak) powerful speech, denouncing his old friend Danton
Thoughts on films, old and new
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