I’ve always been suspicious of revolutions. While change is inevitable and sometimes to be welcomed, far too often revolutionaries seem to embrace constant and sudden change as the optimum outcome. Also whenever anyone claims to embody the will of the people it instantly sets my alarm bells ringing. The movie Danton is a great story of what happens when fanatics take control of a popular mass movement.
To say the French Revolution went wrong is a bit of an understatement. Like many revolutions, both before and after, it quickly lost its way. What began as a battle to restrain the power of the monarchy and guarantee the rights of citizens degenerated into what became known as the ‘The Terror’. The Committee of Public Safety led by Maximilien Robespierre was created to help safeguard the revolution from those seeking to destroy it. As the film begins it swiftly becomes clear that he has very different ideas of what the revolution means than many of its supporters. Chief amongst them is Georges Danton who helped initially lead the revolution but subsequently became disillusioned by the direction it took. Along with his followers he starts to attack the Committee via the press; an action he knows will have harsh consequences.
What follows is a struggle between two giants of their age. Robespierre’s argument is that unless the revolution is protected it will either be dismantled by outside enemies or subverted from within. Therefore it’s necessary to ignore the rule of law in order to deal with subversives. Danton’s position is that unleashing this horror will destroy the revolution more surely than any external enemy ever could. As he notes during his trial, the revolution will become like Saturn, consuming its children. The trial is easily the best part of the movie as it allows Danton a stage to put his case in some of the best courtroom scenes ever filmed.
Far too often Gerard Depardieu turns up on-screen these days playing a bloated parody of himself. Here he is young, relatively trim and firing on all cylinders. Watching him during the trial you can absolutely see why people would follow him to their death. He’s passionate without being fanatical, angry without being self-righteous and at all times his humanity shines through. Robespierre in comparison is portrayed as a clinical politician constantly calculating how to best maximise his position. It’s only at the end when he secures Danton’s death that he realises that eventually his turn will come and the revolution will feed on him. In real life it happened surprisingly quickly. Only three months after Danton’s execution Robespierre and his followers were rounded up and condemned. A cruel lesson in what happens when revolutions are allowed to spin out of control.
As with many political films, the French Revolution and Danton’s trial and murder are used here as a metaphor for another political conflict. In this case the recent battle between the state and the Solidarity Trade Union in Poland. There like in the film, a small group at the top of society had decided that they knew best what was right for everyone and were determined to squash anyone who questioned this. The Solidarity movement was eventually put down with its leaders put on trial and imprisoned without cause. A communist revolution designed to maximise liberty and equality for all was transformed into a dictatorship by those seeking to protect it. These comparisons are make explicit in the film as Danton and his friends are played by French actors while Robespierre and his followers are played by Polish ones.
I’d highly recommend Danton as a film as it covers an area of French politics that should be better known by English audiences. Also it shows Depardieu at the height of his powers before he ran off to America to make bad romantic comedies.
Here is the first part of the trial from Danton: