Date Created: 2 August, 2016
Revised: 2 August, 2016
Andrzej Wajda is one of Poland's leading post-war filmmakers whose work introduced modern Polish cinema to the West. During the occupation of Poland by the Nazis in WW2 1940-43 he worked at a number of odd jobs before joining the resistance, the A.K. or Home Army of the exiled Polish government. After the war he studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow 1945-48 and the High School of Cinematography in Lodz 1950-52 before becoming assistant to director Aleksandr Ford in 1954. In addition to making a number of insightful films about the problem of the resistance against the Nazis and the transformation of Polish society under communism, he worked on a number of collaborative projects with Western European directors and TV. When martial law was imposed in 1981 his film studio was disbanded as he was seen as too sympathetic to the independent trade union movement "Solidarity". He moved to France and began work on a film in 1982 about another revolution which turned violently against the people it was supposed to liberate from tyranny - Danton . In 1989 (the bicentenary of the French Revolution) Wajda was elected as a representative of Solidarity to the Polish parliament and retired from film-making.
Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere, Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland et al. Based on a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska, The Danton Affair (1931) which Wajda had staged at least 3 times before.
The title is taken from the play "The Danton Affair" and suggests that Danton and his downfall is the main focus of attention. Yet, it might be more accurate to have called the film "Danton vs. Robespierre" since the conflict between the two men, their political rivalry and their different conceptions of the role of violence in the French Revolution are major themes in the film.
Joint Polish/French production. Set in France during the Terror in 1794. Danton returns from exile in the countryside (an estate perhaps bought with funds corruptly acquired) to challenge the Committee of Public Safety, led by Robespierre, and its violent policies of Terror and war. Danton's oratorical skills make him an "enemy of the republic" in Robespierre's eyes and thus he must be got rid of in a show trial and public execution (by Guillotine on 16 Germinal or 5 April 1794).
The historical context in which the film was made is important. Poland in the early 1980s saw a challenge to the Stalinist system and the monopoly of power of the Communist Party which had been in place since WW2. Dissidents sought trade unions independent of the state and party ("Solidarity"), political democracy, freedom of speech, prosperity for ordinary people. In 1981 General Jarulszelski seized power under threat of a Soviet invasion (like 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslavakia). The Communist revolutions of 1948/49 in Eastern Europe were made in the name of the people and freedom but ended in dictatorship and murder of opposition. Violence was justified during the transition to socialism/communism to create "new socialist man", destroy all remnants of the old order (mixture of liberal, fascist, Catholic and traditional rural elites), destroy internal enemies (purges and show trials of Cold War period). Show trials in late 1940s and early 1950s were used to purge Communist party of Titoist elements - independent communists who followed Yugoslav model.
Overall theme is that violent revolutions made in the name of the people (whether Jacobin or communist) produce a worse tyranny than that which they sought to replace. A just end never justifies the use of unjust means. Revolutions, like Saturn, consume their own children (see Goya's painting).
"Andrzej Wajda" in World Film Directors. Volume 2, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), pp. 1148-55.
Entry "Andrzej Wajda" in Wikipedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrzej_Wajda>.
Entry "Danton" in Wikipedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danton_(1983_film)>
Mrs. B. Urgolsikova, "Andrzej Wajda" in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Volume 2 Directors/Filmmakers, ed. Christopher Lyon (London: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 567-570.
Robert Darnton, "Danton," in Past Imperfect: History according to the Movies, ed. Mark C. Carnes (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), pp. 104-109.
Robert Darnton, "Film: Danton and Double Entendre," The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections on Cultural History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), pp. 37-52.