Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Most critical attention to the preeminent Polish director Andrzej Wajda still focuses on his celebrated War Trilogy from the 1950s, to the extent that when he was awarded with a special Oscar in 2000, most of the film clips shown were totally unfamiliar to the members of the Academy.
Wajda made many kinds of pictures; 1960's Innocent Sorcerers is an excellent romance among young Polish hipsters, with great jazz music by Krzysztof Komeda. In the late 1970s the director's penchant for topical politics, eventually resulted in films that supported the Polish Solidarity movement. A crackdown by the Communist authorities left Wajda without the ability to make pictures in his own country, which led quickly to the production of the historical drama Danton, filmed in Paris with a half- French and half- Polish cast.
American impressions of the French Revolution invariably lead to film and TV versions of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel, both of which use the wholesale executions at the guillotine as surefire plot devices. The inference is that everything after the storming of the Bastille is chaos and anarchy, with the indiscriminate head-choppings serving as proof that French politics is beyond rational analysis. Danton focuses on the last days of Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu), one of the instigators of the 1789 revolution who five years later became its most famous non-royal victim.
1794 the revolution had stalled into a murderous period called the Reign of Terror, or just The Terror. Danton was the first president of the Committee of Public Safety, a tribunal convened to maintain control and dispense revolutionary justice. With a war against Austria going poorly, the definition of treason was extended beyond counter-revolutionaries to apply to political opponents as well. Power shifted from the municipal authorities and the National Convention to the Committee, which dispensed the violent executions.
Danton begins with the wealthy, immensely popular leader returning from a rest in the country. Danton's supporters and friends assume that he will challenge the Committee and its ruthless new leader Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak), a paranoid political strategist lacking Danton's connection with the ordinary citizenry. Danton tells his associates that he wants The Terror to end, and that he'd rather become its victim than continue to support the slaughter. He keeps his more militant supporters guessing about his real aims, which allows Robespierre time to formulate a pre-emptive counterstrike. After a failed attempt at conciliation, Robespierre has Danton and his "accomplices" arrested as conspirators against the revolution. Danton makes impassioned speeches to the assembled Convention, but the accused are prevented from defending themselves. The usual summary orders for execution are issued.
Director Wajda makes several interesting choices, starting with his casting. French actors play Danton's supporters while Robespierre's cronies on the Committee are played by Poles. The result is a split in acting styles that differentiates the earthy victims from Robespierre's malign conspirators. Depardieu's Danton is a big and effusive man who loves his pleasures and maintains a positive attitude even as he questions his own part in the Reign of Terror. Wojciech Pszoniak's Robespierre is Danton's exact opposite, a suspicious politician who knows he's playing a game of death. For Robespierre ruthlessness is merely expediency. He strikes first because he assumes others, if they have any sense, think as he does. Robespierre talks with Danton knowing that they can have no meeting of minds, if only because the impulsive Danton refuses to indulge his morbid game.
The arrest and trial toss Danton and his hapless friends into a rigged legal process that can only lead to the guillotine. Pamphleteer Camille Desmoulins (Patrice Chéreau) must watch his wife in the gallery scream for his release while clutching their newborn baby. The cold Robespierre wins, and the film arrives at the gory spectacle at the guillotine. Danton ends with Robespierre's son demonstrating his memorization of the revolution's idealistic "Rights of Man" speech. Wajda doesn't want to give his film its natural conclusion: Robespierre met his own fate only a few months later, when the political tide turned against him.
With Solidarity outlawed and the Communists imposing strict measures in Poland, Danton is rightly considered a political statement by the exiled Andzrej Wajda. The movie shows Robespierre issuing Soviet-style instructions to an artist, insisting that a mural be altered because one of the revolutionary heroes it honors has already been executed as an enemy of the state. By concentrating on the Danton-Robespierre conflict, Danton skips over most of the usual epic crowd scenes but never seems compromised. Historians have complimented the production's accurate costumes, props and other details. We're given an impassioned portrait of two fascinating men at the center of a momentous chapter of history.
Criterion's DVD of Danton is presented in a flawless enhanced transfer that reveals the film's remarkable production design. The colors of many rooms are soft pastels in a similar range, a visual choice that stylizes the 1790s without giving the impression of a film shot in a museum. The wealthy Danton is dressed to the nines but is often so distracted that he goes unshaven and wears his powdered wig misaligned. Many of his supporters dress much more plainly.
The disc producer has located the perfect extra, a lengthy behind-the-scenes TV show that interviews several of the film's creatives and actors. Depardieu reports that he needed special tutoring before playing the role, as he knew nothing about the French Revolution. He compliments his opposite number Wojciech Pszoniak but laughs when put in the position of having to pronounce the Polish actor's name. Video interviews with director Wajda, writer Jean-Claude Carrière and film critic Jerzy Plazewski also appear, as does a trailer.
Film scholar Leonard Quart's insert booklet essay provides informed insights as to the film's political import in 1983. The show will inspire viewers to seek out more information about the French Revolution.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Interviews with Wajda, Carrière, critic Jerzy Plazewsi, 42-min Polish behind the scenes docu, essay by Leonhard Quart, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 16, 2009
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies .
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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