At the beginning of the political year last September, when Frenchmen returned from their vacations to face a declining franc, an escalating arms race, a crisis in the Middle East, and trouble everywhere on the home front, François Mitterrand summoned his ministers to the Elysée Palace and lectured them on the sorry state of history—not the current turn of events but the history that French children were failing to learn in school. No doubt the president had other worries. But the crisis that he placed at the top of his agenda was the inability of the electorate to sort out the themes of its past. What would become of a citizenry that could no longer distinguish between Louis XIII and Louis XIV, between the Second Republic and the Third, or (and this seems to have been what really hurt) between Robespierre and Danton?
Mitterrand may not have mentioned the controversy aroused by Andrzej Wajda’s film, but he probably had Danton on his mind. He had disapproved of it when he saw it at a private screening before its release in January 1983. It had outraged his supporters on the Socialist—Communist left when it was shown at the Assemblée Nationale. And for the next half year it provided left-wing intellectuals with an opportunity to score points in the popular press by demonstrating their ability to set the historical record straight and their determination to overhaul the curriculum of secondary schools.
While the opposition gloated—“Thank you, Monsieur Wajda,” crowed Michel Poniatowski of the Gaullists—the left thundered with indignation. “What history!” exclaimed Pierre Joxe, the leader of the Socialist deputies in the Assemblée Nationale. And the worst thing was that it could be taken as truth by French schoolchildren. Victims of curricular reforms that had “cut them off from history,” they “will not be able to know who Danton was after having seen him portrayed like that.” Louis Mermaz, the Socialist president of the assembly, issued the same warning: “The teaching of history has become so bad … that the young people of today lack the knowledge of chronology that the men of my generation were fortunate enough to acquire from primary school onward. The film is misleading…. It makes me want to make a plea for the revival of the teaching of history, something essential for a nation, for a civilization.”
Such vehemence may seem puzzling to the American viewers of Danton. We know that the French take their history seriously and that it doesn’t do to tamper with their Revolution. But why should the Socialists disavow a version of the feud between Danton and Robespierre that puts Danton in a favorable light? Could not Danton’s attempts to stop the Terror be seen as a heroic foreshadowing of the resistance to Stalinism? Is not Wajda a hero of Solidarity? And shouldn’t Wajda’s Danton be expected to appeal to the moderate left in France, the champions of socialism with a human face, the party that covered billboards during Mitterand’s campaign with pictures of a rose extending from a fist?
Now that Danton has crossed the ocean, it seems appropriate to pursue those questions, for they take us into the strange symbolic world of the European left, a world in which intellectuals become entangled in the myths they have created and where lines easily cross, even when they are strung out with the best of intentions between the bien pensants of Paris and Warsaw.
Danton grew out of both capitals, like a contemporary tale of two cities. Having survived the repression of Solidarity, Wajda devoted his next film to a historical theme, one located safely back in Paris, two centuries before the zomos stamped out the last remnants of free speech in the streets of Warsaw. The film opens with some grim scenes in the streets of Paris at the end of 1793. Danton arrives from his country estate in order to turn back the Terror that he himself had helped to create after the overthrow of the monarchy in August 1792. Soon he is engaged in a desperate struggle over the course of the Revolution, which pits the moderates or “Indulgents” against the hard-liners around Robespierre in the Committee of Public Safety. The film dramatizes Danton’s inability to stop the guillotining and ends with his own execution on April 5, 1794.
In order to compress such a complex story into a movie, Wajda had to trim the historical record and to cut his text. He worked from a Polish play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska, which celebrated Robespierre as a champion of the people and which had served as a rallying point for the Polish left in the 1930s. In adapting the play for the screen, Wajda used a French screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, and the French ministry of culture contributed three of the twenty-four million francs in his budget. The actors, evenly divided between Poles and Frenchmen, spoke their native languages, leaving it to the dubbers to create an illusion of a mutually comprehensible dialogue. (In the version shown in the United States the sound is in French and the subtitles in English, while the lips of the Polish actors follow the rhythm of their own tongue.) As a result, Danton became intensely Polish and intensely French. It also appeared as a quasi-official production of the Mitterrand government, as if the Socialists wanted to align the French revolutionary tradition with the quasi revolution of Solidarity. The mixture of ingredients was perfectly suited for scrambling meanings and confounding critics.
Wajda quickly disposes of the simplest version of what the film might mean to the Poles. It was not an allegory, he stated over and over again to interviewers from the French press. “Let one thing be clear,” he told Le Monde. “Danton is not Lech Walesa and Robespierre is not Jaruzelski!” “If you must find historical analogies, you should look for them in a completely different period,” he said to Le Matin. “Those two years of Solidarity were not a revolution, or in any case not of the same nature as the French Revolution.”
True, one could construct parallels between the two pairs of political rivals. Robespierre’s personal fastidiousness and unbending dogmatism evoke the ramrod stiffness of the Polish general, and Danton’s earthy conviviality suggests the popular manner of the hero from the Gdansk dockyards. But Wajda refuses to let his story fall into a simple formula—the apparatchik versus the man of the people—and produces plenty of incriminating evidence against Danton. If Gérard Depardieu were acting out an apology for Walesa, it would be foolish to insist on Danton’s corruption at the very time when the Polish government was attempting to blacken Walesa’s reputation by accusing him of pocketing funds from Solidarity.
The fact remains, however, that Danton and Robespierre personify two kinds of revolution and that the film tilts the balance in favor of Danton. “Robespierre is the world of the East; Danton is the Western world,” Wajda told Le Matin. “The attitude and arguments of [Danton] are very close to us. The clash between these two men is exactly the moment we are living through today.” Depardieu’s powerful acting makes Danton the dominant and the more sympathetic figure, but his insistence on Danton’s self-indulgence could be taken as bourgeois decadence. When he meets Robespierre for dinner to discuss their differences he gets sloppily drunk. His inability to take decisive action against the Reign of Terror in the crisis of March and April, 1794, might even suggest the failure of the West to rescue Solidarity in 1981.
But the film is too ambiguous to provide a precise moral for the present. One cannot even gauge how much Wajda cast his weight on the side of Dantonism, because the texts of the original Polish drama and the screenplay are not available for comparison. Nonetheless, one can spot the points at which the film deviated from the historical record. Three of them would probably stand out clearly to a Polish audience.
Near the beginning of the film, a small boy, the picture of innocence, stands naked in a tub, trying to recite the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen while his older sister bathes him. Whenever the words fail to come, he holds out a hand and she slaps him over the knuckles. She is not so much washing him as brainwashing him in order to ingratiate herself with her father’s distinguished boarder, Citizen Robespierre. Soon afterward, Robespierre orders some thugs from the secret police to destroy the shop in which Camille Desmoulins has been printing Le Vieux Cordelier, the journal that popularized the Dantonists’ attempts to turn back the Terror. Having dwelled on the pain etched on the face of the boy, the camera picks up every detail in the smashing of the presses. Neither episode took place—and, as far as one can tell, did not occur in the Przybyszewska play. But the Polish viewer would not have to know that Wajda invented them in order to see them as a comment on thought control at home.
The third episode provides an even clearer indictment of Stalinist indoctrination. Robespierre, wrapped in the robes of a Caesar, is posing for his portrait in David’s studio. He stops to berate the prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal, who is having difficulty rigging Danton’s trial. Then he notices a gigantic canvas, where David has begun to paint his famous version of the Tennis Court Oath of June 20, 1789. In the crowd of patriots, Robespierre spies the freshly painted head of Fabre d’Eglantine, who is then being tried along with Danton. “Wipe it out,” he orders. “But he was there,” David objects. Nonetheless, Robespierre insists and so Fabre disappears like all the victims of Stalinist historiography. Yet this scene never happened. Fabre did not participate in the Tennis Court Oath, because he was not a deputy to the Estates General in 1789. Wajda seems to have been so intent on exposing the falsification of history by the Stalinists that he was willing to falsify it himself.
Wajda’s Polish viewers could not be expected to know a great deal about the biography of an obscure character like Fabre d’Eglantine; but they would be certain to have strong views about history, because national consciousness is passionately historical in Poland. From the first moments of its existence, Solidarity tried to free the past as well as the present. Having been educated in the historical ideology that the regime used to legitimate itself—above all the line that leads from Robespierrism to Bolshevism—the shipyard workers of Gdansk demanded the right to strip their history of dogma and to confront facts, especially the awkward facts that extend from the Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn in 1940 to the partitions of Poland in the eighteenth century.
Wajda staged a production of Danton in the shipyards in 1981. His early films showed that he shared his countrymen’s passion for the past. Landscape after Battle (1970) linked a popular uprising to a play-within-a-play, one that commemorated the Polish victory over the Teutonic knights at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410, and Man of Marble (1977) recounted the attempt of a film maker to recover the true story of a proletarian hero from the rubbish of Stalinist propaganda. An audience familiar with that theme might see a similar message in Wajda’s dissection of Robespierrist mythology.