I’m addicted to the Criterion Collection right now. I’ve got a little over 60 titles and I’m still mapping out which cinematic adventure to get next. Danton was just released as spine #464 in the DVD collection and it’s definitely a great addition to Criterion.
Gérard Depardieu and Wojciech Pszoniak star in Andrzej Wajda’s fantastic depiction of the French Revolution and the ideological clash between man-of-the-people Georges Danton and cold hearted Jacobin extremist Maximilien Robespierre, the two key figures of this period. Wajda draws parallels to Polish solidarity, a movement that was being quashed by the government as the film was in production.
Wadja has a large body of work that includes films that are more psychological and romantic in nature—most based in contemporary Poland or in the horrific years of World War II. Danton (1983) appears to be a period piece by the front cover and conversely not about Poland at all. Wadja lays out the blueprint for an passionate allegory on the uselessness of a violent revolution—and of course the clear parallels between the French Revolution and twentieth century Poland.
The movie is based on the play, The Danton Affair, by Stranislawa Przybyszewska—a communist whose sympathies were with the radical Robespierre. Wadja then decided to flip the play on its ear in 1975, making Danton the protagonist and by 1980 at the apex of the Solidarity liberation movement, he transforms his play into a film, with production taking place in Poland and location scenes being shot in France. Just like the actual problems presented on screen, the filming of Danton was tangled up by a Soviet coup in December 1981—creating a totalitarian regime that halted production permanently. Taking the movie to Paris, Wajda only returned from Polish exile in 1989 after the Jaruzelski government fell.
Taking place in 1794, Danton starts almost five years after the fall of the Bastille. Following the period when the newly formed revolutionary government begins to create a Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal to suppress its enemies and raise military forces, we find Danton and Robespierre as the central figureheads arresting and executing huge numbers of suspects, including Marie Antoinette and Duc d’Orléans—the period known as the Reign of Terror.
This film raises some complex questions in rather simple ways seen through the interactions between Danton and Robespierre, presented in opposing political, logical and humanistic ideologies. Danton is Wajda’s crowning achievement not only in the context of film, but also as a piece of historical significance, and Criterion does a beautiful job of reminding us why.
The DVD is a two-disc set with the film presented in its original 1:66:1 aspect ratio, video interviews with Wajda, screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Polish film critic Jerzy Plazewski and a 42-minute behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the film. For the history buffs, check out this little masterpiece.