Clio by the Book and at the Movies
Danton: The French Revolution as Mirror of the Past and the Present
Time was when the French Revolution was considered “a good thing,” a giant step toward modern participatory government, equality before the law, and other fundamental freedoms. In recent years, however, a very vocal group of revisionist historians have persuaded many that the Revolution was more of “a bad thing” than earlier generations of historians as well as the political left were willing to admit. Some revisionists tell us that the Revolution was “a tragedy,” overfull with excessive violence, full of sound and fury signifying little but unfulfilled grand illusions. Historians of this persuasion will typically dwell at gruesome length on “The Terror of 1793-4,” evoking scenes of mass drownings in the Loire River, the bloody repression at Lyon, and the spiraling executions in Paris during the Great Terror of spring 1794. Such excesses and violence, some emphasize, was the unavoidable outcome of the unforeseen intervention of “the people” in the revolutionary process. Liberal elites were on the road to peaceful reform but the force of popular violence blew the Revolution off course. François Furet, the most prominent French revisionist until his death in 1997, did not go this far but held, nonetheless, that The Terror was built into the Revolution from it’s beginning in 1789 once the “absolute rule” of the King was replaced by “absolute rule” of the people. TheCritical Dictionary of the French Revolution is a collective work by Furet and his (mainly) French colleagues. Published in the bicentennial year 1989, it represents a summary of French revisionism.
The revisionists in France and elsewhere have not convinced everyone, and there are numerous historians contest the “tragic view” of recent vintage. Robert Darnton is a leading example of Anglo-American scholars who take up the pen and keyboard in defense of a more positive appraisal of the French Revolution. And so it is that the debates over the meaning and significance of the Revolution continue.
That the history of the Revolution remains contested ground is borne out in films as well. One of the acknowledged classics is “La Marseillaise,” a film made by the great director Jean Renoir in 1938. At a time when France was plagued with domestic struggles and the threat of German expansionism under Hitler, the film recalls the unity and courage of the French people who rallied to save the Revolution and repel the invading armies of Austria and Prussia in 1792. The closing frames show the volunteers from Marseilles defeating the Austrians and Prussians at the battle of Valmy.
The film Danton tells a different story. The people are not to be seen except in a bread line grumbling about Robespierre and the Revolutionary government until a government spy strolls by and the discontent falls silent. Nor do we see the triumphs of popular struggle and military valor. Instead, the film looks closely at two months during Terror—March and April 1794—and the bitter struggle between Danton and Robespierre over the future course of the Revolution. Danton claims he speaks for the people in calling an end to the Terror, the machinery of which he helped construct. Robespierre, convinced that Terror is still needed, sees Danton as threat to the Revolution and decides, reluctantly, that his rival must die. The film ends with Danton at the guillotine.
Made in 1982 by the Polish director, Andrzej Wadja, the film is based on a Polish play of 1931 called the “Danton Affair.” Begun in Poland during a high point of the Solidarity liberation movement, it was eventually filmed in France after the movement was outlawed and martial law was instituted in 1981 under General Jarulszelski—a coup directed by the Soviet Union. After the coup, Wadja and his crew moved to France as émigrés. There they completed the film with a cast of Polish and French actors. Danton was played by the French Gérard Depardieu and Robespierre, by the Pole Wojciech Pszoniak. Although Wadja had staged the play several times before, the film reflects Wadja’s opposition to the return of a Stalinist regime in his homeland.
Questions for the Film
- What do you make of the opening scene when Elenore Duplay is teaching her brother to recite the keystone document of the Revolution, “The Rights of Man and Citizen”?
- In the central scene of the film, Danton and Robespierre meet in a hotel. What do you think is the point of showing other guests who are then hounded out? Based on your reading of Danton and Robespierre, does the meeting ring historically true?
- What is the point of having Madame Desmoulins go everywhere with her infant in arms? The Desmoulins are portrayed as being rather well off and probably had a servant or two to look after the baby.
- What does Robespierre’s speech at the Convention intend to show?
- What does the musical score add to the film?
- What do you think is the meaning of the final scene with Robespierre in bed?
- Some critiques claim that historical films reveal more about the period in which they were made than about the period they portray. To what extent do you think this is true of Danton?
- However flawed it may be, what does Danton contribute to your understanding of the French Revolution?
- What does Danton illustrate about the possibility of film as form of good history?
Questions for the Reading
Each generation, it is said, rewrites history, revealing it's particular interests and ideological concerns within a context of surrounding circumstances. Hence, in the attempt to recover and interpret the past, historical writing also reflects concerns of the present. In this sense, written and filmed history mirror both "the past" and "the present." The French Revolution provides a classic example of this continuing process of rewriting and revision, as our study of the film Danton and selected historical writing will show.
We'll begin by looking at examples of how Georges Danton (1759-1794) and Maximillien Robespierre (1758-1794) have been interpreted by J. M. Thompson in 1929 and by other historians in 1989. We'll also look at how two historians of the 1980s disagree over the nature and significance of that radical part of the Revolution known as "The Terror." With this background, we'll then study the film Danton.
In the reading, concentrate on identifying the differences in the accounts of Danton, of Robespierre, and of the Terror.
Questions for comparing the accounts of Danton and Robespierre by J. M. Thompson (1929) and Mona Ozouf et al. (1989):
1. What are two major differences in these biographical sketches?
2. How might these differences reflect the era in which they were written?
3. Which of the paired accounts seems to be more favorable to the leader in question? How so?
4. To what extent has the heroism (or villainy) attributed to Danton or to Robespierre changed over time in the hands of successive historians?
5. Which of the two accounts of Danton (or Robespierre) do you find more compelling?
6. How would you make a film that centers on Danton and Robespierre?
Questions for comparing Francois Furet and David Bien on "The Terror."
1. What do you think is the main point of Furet's interpretation of The Terror? What evidence does he present to support it?
2. What do you think is the main thrust of Bien's critique of Furet? What evidence does he bring to bear?
3. To what extent are you persuaded that the Terror was built into the Revolution from its very beginning and was thus a natural outcome of the 1789 revolutionary program?
4. What would either Francois Furet or David Bien emphasize in a film that represents their view of the Revolution and Terror?
R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution (New York: Atheneum, 1965).
Alan Forrest, The French Revolution. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993.
Colin Jones, The Longman Companion to the French Revolution. Longman, 1988.
Colin Lucas, "Revolutionary Violence, the People and the Terror" in The French Revolution and the Creation of ModernPolitical Culture: Volume 4, The Terror ed. K.M. Baker, pp.57-79.
Documents by Robespierre and on the Terror [web]
French Revolution Web Sites [web]
David Hart, University of Adelaide, Danton, Robespierre and The French Revolution [web]
The French Revolution: the People Enter Politics, by William Doyle, with fine links to first rate articles by UK historians, to glossary, to documents, etc. [web]
Norman Hampson, © The Terror in the French Revolution [web]
Francois Furet, Comment on the Terror Text Resources [web]
Andrzej Wajda, the great Polish director, has turned to history for his latest film. Danton is a thriller about the French Revolution, full of cutting dialogue and overheated action. At its center is a bitter struggle between moderation and zealotry, as embodied by the title character and his rival, Robespierre.
In production notes for the picture, Wajda apologizes for turning to such a familiar period. But he notes that all his films ''address themselves to the issue of man challenging History.'' He justifies his French foray by listing its main concerns: ''how freedom operates as a motor of history; what things threaten history; and (whether) sacrifices (must) be made to protect freedom. . . .''
These questions seem especially challenging when raised by a Polish filmmaker whose movies have sometimes plunged boldly into current events. Wajda's last film, after all, was the 1981 ''Man of Iron,'' which included newsreel footage of the Solidarity movement and featured labor hero Lech Walesa as an actor.
For all its costumes and melodramatics, ''Danton'' too has a strong political dimension, particularly in its raging debates over revolutionary aims. The surprise is that Wajda tries not to portray either of the film's antagonists as a clear-cut hero. Danton comes closer, with his yearning to end the terror he's partly responsible for; and Wajda underlines this yearning by casting a charismatic French star (Gerard Depardieu) in this role. But the director refuses to play down Danton's many eccentricities, and he allows Robespierre a streak of humanity, notably in his compassion for a doomed comrade.
In the end, Wajda shows both men as trapped in a historical web that's inescapable even for those who helped weave it. The revolution itself, meanwhile , is drowning in its own confusion. Danton goes to the guillotine as only a movie star can, dripping with dignity. And viewers are left to ponder the forces that drag social change beyond responsible social control.
Does the director intend ''Danton'' as a metaphor for recent Polish events, with Danton as a surrogate Walesa and Robespierre as a stand-in for the military government or even the Soviet regime? Interviewed by filmmaker Marcel Ophuls in the current issue of American Film magazine, Wajda says Poland was indeed in a revolutionary situation last year, and that ''Danton'' attempts to describe ''the atmosphere of revolution.''
Yet the film is best seen, I think, as a wide-ranging meditation on politics and revolution, rather than a coded commentary on specific occurrences. Wajda seemed to support this view at the New York Film Festival the other day in a press conference conducted by telephone from West Berlin, where he is completing his next picture. The reason for exploring history, he said, is to understand patterns and laws that underlie human affairs. For all its horror and bloodshed, he continued, the French Revolution ''won'' insofar as it brought about new social relationships - just as Solidarity won a ''moral victory'' despite its failure to survive as an institution.
The director feels ''Danton'' illustrates ''one of the tragedies of every revolution: the point when those who bring it about are no longer in a position to determine how it develops.'' All revolutions, he says, are threatened by two things: a tendency to stop prematurely, and a contrary tendency to be taken over by a new group ''who fail to realize the revolutionary ideal.''
''Danton'' focuses on a crucial moment when the French Revolution is pushing beyond its limits, bidding to destroy its own aims and turn to chaos. This focus helps explain the struggle between the main characters - Danton wanting to curtail events before they are overwhelmed by confusion, Robespierre pushing ever further. The masses, meanwhile, remain outside this decisive conflict. ''Having been manipulated,'' says Wajda, ''they can no longer express their will.''
It's possible that ''Danton'' has more biting political meanings and intentions than Wajda cares to let on, fearing for his status in the Polish artistic community (his next project is stage production in Krakow) or his personal well-being. ''There are moments in the history of our country when we can afford to make . . . a political film that one is not ashamed to put one's signature to,'' he told Ophuls, adding that ''right now, this is not the case in Poland.''
In fact, the thrust of his recent work has been away from obvious political slants - in such pictures as ''The Orchestra Conductor'' and ''The Young Girls of Wilko.'' Even the bold ''Man of Iron'' ends with more a whimper than a bang, in a scene where the Gdansk accord between strikers and authorities is referred to as ''nothing but pieces of paper.'' The evidence points to ''Danton'' as less a veiled polemic than an examination of longstanding historical currents, conducted in movie terms rather than scholarly ones, but reasonably resonant and intelligent for all that.
In any case, the carefully crafted surfaces of the movie (which was shot in France) could make it Wajda's most popular work with American audiences. Depardieu, who seems to pop up in every French-language picture that comes along , is sturdy and generally credible in the title role. Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak brings a high-strung energy to Robespierre. The supporting cast is generally strong, with French performers appearing as Danton's cronies and Poles playing Robespierre's.
The cinematography, by Igor Luther, richly captures the colors and textures associated with Jacques Louis David's paintings of the period. Jean-Claude Carriere wrote the screenplay, based on a Polish play that Wajda mounted in Warsaw eight years ago. The rating is PG, although Danton's execution is depicted in gruesome detail.