A French-Polish co-production made in 1983, before glasnost made it possible to criticize the Soviet system directly, Andrzej Wajda’s Danton uses the familiar dodge of commenting on forbidden topics by making a political film set in the past. It doesn’t take much imagination to see “Lenin” or “Stalin” where the movie gives us “Robespierre.” The parallels are nonetheless vague enough that, with the distance of time, Danton feels more like a straight historical drama about the revolutionary and his era than a veiled critique of a dysfunctional political system.
I was impressed by Danton the only time I saw it, on cable television. So when Criterion published their DVD, I unhesitatingly bought it. I don’t regret doing so; the film has provided considerable pleasure. But while many of the initially impressive qualities are still there, they seem overshadowed by faults that I did not notice at first.
One of these faults is purely technical. The sound is simply overbearing at times. It is not just loud. It borders on painful. (I wouldn’t have noticed this through the tinny television speaker on which I saw it in the ’80s.) The dissonant music (also way too loud) doesn’t help, inducing a brooding gloom with far too reliable facility.
Which points to my bigger reservation. There is certainly a lot at stake in Danton, but some of the characters go on and on so much, and with such shrill insistence that after a while historical drama becomes hysterical drama (in the sense of emotional extremes). I do not mean to trivialize an obviously intelligent, committed film. Its overwrought, frenetic characters do suggest, however, that Wajda and his collaborators equate serious historical drama with dogged solemnity punctuated by emotional outbursts. When they aren’t wailing or shouting, the characters in Danton seem to be walking glumly under a cloud, as if they are somehow aware how badly things will end. To depict the French Revolution as a period of competing emotional pathologies may be historically accurate, but it doesn’t make for very lucid drama. The political stakes become secondary to the characters’ emotional responses to them.
The maelstrom of revolutionary emotions does, however, emphasize Danton’s chief virtue (aside from the production values you would expect from any expensive historical drama). The film ably dramatizes Danton’s famous assertion that “the Revolution devours its own children.” For it is not only Danton who is destroyed by the Reign of Terror. Robespierre is portrayed as a guilt stricken idealist who recognizes that his actions will destroy the very goals for which he and Danton have worked. (Robespierre’s own fall and execution are not depicted in the film.) The recognition that ends do not justify the means overrides the film’s weaknesses to make Danton a tense, tragic vision of fanaticism. Viewed with a tolerance for its histrionics, it can provide a rewarding reminder of the insanity of ideological excess. Just keep the volume down.