In France, under the reign of Terror, one of the most prominent leaders of the revolution, Georges Danton, attempts to lay bare the corruption of the Committee for Public Safety and its chair, Maximillian Robespierre.
When looking through films from Polish directors, I was surprised to find that one of Andrzej Wajda’s higher rated films was about the French Revolution. As a fan of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” I was intrigued. As the film unfolded I realized exactly why a man, who saw immense social and political upheaval in his native home of Poland, would be interested in telling this story of corruption and despotism being laid bare for all to see.
The film begins with a familiar scene, French men and women entering Paris and having their carts, carriages, and persons searched. Immediately the sense of dread is apparent. Even those waiting in bread-lines are afraid to speak too loudly of their frustrations lest they become acquainted with Madame Guillotine. We also get a very first glimpse of the people’s love for Georges Danton, Hero of the Revolution, as they follow his carriage in Paparazzi-like fervor.
This is then contrasted with, Maximillian Robespierre, ill and barely able to stand on his own, yet made up by the hairdressers and tailors to cut the regal figure he is. He is ordering the destruction of a printing press, owned by a friend of his and one of Danton’s compatriots, for the distribution of subversive tracts.
From this point forward, the film relates the conflict between these men’s ideologies, the arrest of Danton, his inflammatory show trial, and fallout through scenes of long speeches, conversations, and rabble riots. For all the presence of death in this film, it is not an exciting film, with head chop after head chop. Instead, it is a political intrigue which turns, about halfway through, into a passion play of Danton’s martyrdom.
I’ll confess that my viewing was very hampered by my lack of knowledge about the actual history of the French Revolution. After the film, I literally had to look up who Georges Danton was in order to place him historically. It made it a little difficult to figure out character allegiances early in the film but any patient viewer should be able to put t together as they go in an entirely satisfying way. In fact, if I was to try to pitch this movie to people, I might say it is a little like “Braveheart” if William Wallace had not been a warrior but a speaker.
That may sound boring to many Americans but to me it was enthralling. Danton (Gerard Depardieu, “Cyrano de Bergerac”) speaks with a power than blasts through your core about freedom, rights, the power of the people over the government, and the tyranny of the government over the people. Meanwhile, Wojciech Pszoniak’s
(“The Promised Land”) Robespierre is the consummate dictator, ruling to maintain his own power, compromising every value which put him in that seat, and snidely lording it over everyone from his boardroom.
I would go on about the acting, superb, or the production design, mind-bogglingly immersive, but I want to focus people on the powerful display of conviction that “Danton” contains. Danton is truly a man of principle. He may fail to live up to them at times, eating to excess, housing parties of gambling and debauchery, but his conviction that the people must be free and protected has kept him from the public seats of power precisely because he knows their corrupting influence and that the true power lies in the people and in nonviolent expression, even unto his own death, if need be.
This film is needed today. In a country torn, where men, women, gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, black, white, Mexican, American, Puerto Rican, Christian, Jew, Muslim, are all being pitted against each other by the powerful and rich, there is something that unites us that we have forgotten. We are the People. We are free. When the government trades in fear, we ALL lose. We all live under a new Terror. The Terror of the other.
This film is a powerful reminder of where government’s power comes from and what that means for we individuals who grant them that power. We may grant it to them through inaction or we can wield it collectively but regardless, we must do so bravely and loudly lest we be silent observers of Terror’s bloody beheadings.
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