DANTON (Andrzej Wajda, 1983)

The Reign of Terror has begun, bringing Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu, powerful) back to Paris, in 1793, from self-imposed exile to oppose former Revolutionary compatriot Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak, brilliant) on the matter of its continuation. Danton arrives by coach on a rainy night. What he sees in the square is a dreamlike, painterly apparition: protected by a cover, the sleeping guillotine, its gleaming blade pulled up to the top. The static quality of nearly all of Andrzej Wajda’s Danton owes something to its literary source, Polish playwright Stanislawa Przybyszewska’s Sprawa Dantona; but it also is correlative to a suspended historical state owing to Danton and Robespierre’s quarrel. Until near the end, when many heads roll, including Danton’s, in 1794, we see nothing of the guillotine in action. Rather, it remains in our mind’s eye poised for use.
     Unlike the aloof Robespierre, Danton is a favorite among ordinary Parisians, whose warm reception he basks in as Robespierre watches from an upstairs window. One is gregarious; the other, tight-lipped. One wears his white wig loosely, or not at all; the other fits snugly under his. However, although it might seem that one is more political and the other more (and even insanely) idealistic, Wajda’s film shows a Robespierre who has his own qualms about France’s post-Revolutionary path, even though he is one of its architects—a Robespierre strongly influenced by surrounding colleagues. Ironically, it is the quarrel that Danton brings with him—at one point, in a rage, he takes a whack at Robespierre’s wig!—that seems to force Robespierre into an unbending stance. Wajda sees the animosity between them as contributing more to the unfolding tragedy than either man contributes by himself.
     While Danton is being executed, Robespierre hides like a scared child under his bedsheet.

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