Danton (1983): Wajda’s Historical Epic as Political Parable

Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s version of the great French politician is not so much an historical film, but a drama with powerfully modern relevance. Made on an intimate scale, and relying on strong dialogue (and speeches) the movie is a contemporary political parable, with Danton as Lech Walesa and Robespierre as General Jaruzelski.

Set several years after the French Revolution, circa 1793-1794, it centers on the relationship between two seminal and iconic figures, George Danton and Maximilian Robespierre.

The tale opens in November of 1793, with Danton returning to Paris from his country retreat upon learning that the Committee for Public Safety, under Robespierre’s incitement, has begun a series of massive executions, known as The Terror.

Confident in the peoples’ support, Danton clashes with his former ally, but Robespierre rounds up Danton and his followers, tries them before a revolutionary tribunal and dispatches them to the guillotine

Danton scandalized the French leftist intellectuals, because it was not simplistic and one-sided; it showed Robespierre as a more complex man than he’s usually been portrayed.  Danton comes across as the soul of the revolution, a man with passionate and even romantic idealism.

Wajda has said that Danton represents the Western world today, and Robespierre the Stalinist East.  The movie could be appreciated as a period piece of French history as well as a modern parable about the nature of power.