Danton is a great role for an actor to play – a tragic hero in the Shakespearian vein – a great man brought down by circumstance and a tragic flaw. In Danton’s case this flaw is hubris. A revolutionary, loved by the people, Danton believes that though his arch-rival Robespierre may plot against him, the people love him far too much to allow Robespierre to send him to the guillotine. Of course, as many a reality show “star” will testify, the people are fickle. Danton along with his allies finally ends up on the scaffold, a victim of the Terror that he himself was partly responsible for putting into motion in the first place.
Such a good story of course has been told before. Georg Büchner wrote a great play about Danton called Danton’s Death. I can remember seeing a version of it at the National Theatre in the 80s with Brian Cox. Almost 30 years on I still remember parts of the production vividly. This film version came out a year later, directed by a Polish director, Andrzej Wajda. In the film Danton and his allies are in the main played by French actors whilst Robespierre and his cronies are played by Poles. It’s clear the director wanted to draw parallels between the Reign of Terror as depicted in the film and the then situation in Poland between the independent Solidarity union movement and the Soviet-backed Polish regime.
The film is set in 1794, 2 years in to the new French Republic and the Reign of Terror is in full flow. The film opens with passengers in a carriage being checked as they enter the French capital. Among them is Danton. Once allowed through, the carriage passes by the guillotine, its blade peeping forebodingly from under its cover whilst Danton’s head leans against the carriage window. Meanwhile Robespierre is lying sweating and sickly in bed. As for the revolution, people are standing in long queues for bread in the rain, an émigré is on his way to the guillotine and fear is everywhere – from the people going quiet as soon as a revolutionary official walks past to a woman crying when asked for her papers, fearing this means they are going to cut off her head. Later on a printing press is destroyed for daring to print pamphlets calling for the freedom of the press. Later on we see prisoners being rounded up from an overcrowded prison for a trial which is a mere formality in the process of their execution. Fear, conspiracy and death permeate this society.
Robespierre and his followers fear a coup d’état by Danton and his close ally Camille Desmoulins, once a close friend of Robespierre. Robespierre’s cronies are calling for Danton’s execution but Robespierre is the lone voice against such a move. He claims that killing Danton would be barbaric and indefensible and seems to be categorically against it. Robespierre fears that by executing Danton, the bourgeoisie will be plunged into a counter-revolution. The Convention (the Republic’s constitutional and legislative assembly) would in turn rise against them and it would shake the people’s faith in the revolution. Faced with such a situation, they would have no choice but to rule by terror alone. The fact that they are already using terror to ensure their power base seems by the bye. Robespierre’s colleagues however feel that Danton through the auspices of Desmoulins’ propagandizing is waging war on the committees and as such that both are counter-revolutionary. This is despite the fact that it was Danton himself who originally set up the revolutionary cells. It’s hard not to think of the similarities with the infighting between members of the Soviet leadership years later with Trotsky likewise being denigrated by Stalin as a traitor to a revolution he was integral in bringing about in the first place.
It would seem that the fears of Robespierre’s colleagues aren’t without foundation. Danton is being assailed on all sides by people who want him to act against Robespierre before it’s too late. He is clearly seen as the one man who has any chance of success. Danton refuses to take their fears seriously. “Who dares accuse me?” he asks contemptuously. It’s a great little scene. Danton is contemptuous, disdainful, calm and has a wry sense of humour, borne out of innate feeling of superiority. Danton is in equal measure contemptuous of the committee and sure of himself, secure in the knowledge that he has the Paris populace behind him. Danton now wants to end the terror which he acknowledges was set rolling when he formed the Revolutionary Tribunal and voted to execute the King.
The centrists want to join him in this but are afraid he’ll misuse his power once he has overthrown Robespierre. Danton claims he just wants to retire but first feels obliged to help end the terror which he himself helped to put into motion. His colleagues urge him to disarm the Public Safety Committee as they believe he is the only man who can do it. Danton however doesn’t want an insurrection but suggests they go on the attack against Robespierre’s hated secret police and thus be seen by the people as the last saviours of freedom.
Whilst Robespierre spouts ideals, willing to execute individuals in their thousands in the name of revolution, Danton has clearly had enough of the bloodshed. When they meet, you couldn’t find two more different individuals. Robespierre, all prissy and sickly, Danton, sensual, earthy and robust, a man who clearly loves life but who throughout the film is stepping ever closer to his own death. Danton warns Robespierre that divided, both he and Robespierre will fall. In this statement, Danton seems to have more foresight than Robespierre who realises too late that Danton’s execution will prove a hollow victory and that win or lose the forthcoming trial, the revolution is lost.
Danton clearly has a more prosaic approach to the revolution telling his rival that people want to eat and sleep in peace; that they need bread before they will care about the ideals of law, justice and the Republic. He warns Robespierre that men shouldn’t stay in power for too long. When Robespierre asks if this is because he wants power for himself, Danton assures him that he has the real power anyway – from the man in the street. Perhaps the most striking difference between the two can be summed up when Danton tells Robespierre that he’d rather be executed than executioner. He warns Robespierre that it will be Robespierre who will have to cut his head off but he refuses to work with him as his hands are too bloody. Danton wants to end the bloodshed and fight Robespierre to end the terror. He claims it is for this reason alone that he has returned to Paris, guessing, probably correctly, that he is the only man who might be able to stop him.
Realising Danton won’t play ball, Robespierre turns volte-face and has Danton arrested. Using a trick that many a dictatorship has employed ever since, he has him taken to prison under spurious reasons and in the middle of the night. In the arrest scene we get a measure of Danton’s standing among the populace. The arresting officer is so terrified of the great man that he can hardly get out the words of the arrest warrant. Danton, exasperated by this, basically takes charge of his own arrest barking at the arresting soldiers to get a move on. Later on, he orders round the guards in prison as if they are his servants rather than his prison wardens.
Then comes the great trial scene itself. Fellow defendant, Philippeaux, notes to a desperate Desmoulins that political trials have nothing to do with justice. However unlike many of those who were to suffer similar fates under the Nazis or Stalin, Danton does get the chance to address the people and makes a powerful case for himself and his fellow defendants. So much so that Robespierre and his cronies fear they are in danger of losing the advantage to Danton despite fixing the trial in their favour.
It’s hard to know whether Danton was outplayed by Robespierre or if he planned to be arrested so as to open up the eyes of the people to see what the committees were capable of doing, as he claims to his friends in prison. When he hears the Convention has agreed to the trial, he calls them cowards, and unlike Philippeaux sees the forthcoming political trail as a duel, where they will be accused but they in turn can accuse their accusers and let the people decide. Danton has full confidence that the people will be on his side when he talks. If this really was his grand plan, it proves a risky strategy which ultimately fails. As one of his fellow prisoners points out the people are fickle.
As at any political trial before and since, independent journalists are banned. The last thing the Committee needs is for there to be any version of truth going out that is not their fabricated one. Even the court clerks have been instructed not to take down notes of the proceedings so Danton’s words cannot be recorded. Jurors that will vote for a guilty verdict are sought out and when they can’t find the full complement of fixed jurors they decide to forego the regulated number. The judiciary is leaned upon to pronounce a verdict with little regard to the facts of the case. Danton and his colleagues are tried alongside known criminals to help sully their reputation through association.
Not surprisingly the court is packed. However the court’s attempt to silence a man such as Danton proves futile. When they attempt to remind him that he is not allowed to address the public, he in turn reminds them that it was he who founded the tribunal and masterfully takes to the stage. Accused of corruption, he rebukes them by saying that there’s no price possible for a man such as himself and you believe him. This is one man who clearly does not suffer from low self-esteem. Danton tells the public, who are clearly on his side, that his enemies want him killed because he is sincere, tells the truth and they are scared of him. Danton is so sure of his support among the people, he openly attacks the government.
Danton demands that the two committees be tried by public opinion and that the people should decide who is guilty – Danton or the all-powerful committees. Accused of conspiracy, Danton admits he had conspired but with himself and only for peace, for amnesty, for respect for the law and public order, happiness and justice. He then claims that he has also been condemned by his enemies because he is popular and strong. He concludes that the revolution is like Saturn, devouring its own children; and that he thought he was the one who could calm the storm of the revolution. He goes on to note that the current dictatorship is more ferocious than its precursor, and that fearing the return of tyrants they have in fact become tyrants themselves. He concludes that the people don’t want blood, but simply want to live in peace, and that the people only have one enemy – the government. His remonstrance that they are killing your freedom before your eyes and you let it happen unfortunately has its echoes throughout many a country over the centuries. It’s also a pretty fair depiction of what takes place after many a revolution which tends to take on a destructive life of its own and sweep away the lives of innocents and revolutionaries alike in the process.
Robespierre tells the presiding judge in no uncertain terms that they want Danton dead and that it’s up to him to justify the verdict. The judge, Fouquier, reminds Robespierre that he’s a judge not Robespierre’s private executioner. Robespierre replies that he is in fact an executioner – that of the public; and that enemies of the republic are sent to him and it’s his duty not to judge them but to eliminate them. Robespierre tells him that when the republic is under threat, whatever the committees do is right, and threatens Fouquier that if he does not step up to the plate, his head will be the next to roll. This argument that a perceived perilous situation necessitates relinquishing the rule of law has been used by governments since time immemorial and frighteningly still has its modern counterparts. And then in a nod to Trotsky and his ilk who were removed from any depiction in the Soviet Revolution, Robespierre, on leaving the artist David’s studio and noticing a massive artwork celebrating the Revolution, admonishes the artist for including his rival Fabre and has him brushed out of history even though his presence in the painting is historically accurate.
An associate of Danton’s is later forced to sign a false confession under the threat of execution so the committee can then make out they have discovered a plot to free the accused and bring down the republic involving Desmoulins’ wife and several of Danton’s friends. Under this pretext of a supposed threat to the convention, the court submits to the committee’s decision to rush through a decree whereby it bars the accused from speaking. They also forbid them to call witnesses. Danton protests that Robespierre’s minions are just following orders and will condemn them to death though they know they’re innocent. He warns that though they may cut off his head, the man who issued these orders will soon be following him.
By the end of the trial the dock stands empty, all the accused having been barred from their own legal proceedings. Nothing symbolises better the fact that a political trial has nothing to do with justice than the image of the empty dock whilst the death sentences are pronounced. With Danton gone, the courtroom is now half empty. Ironically, the creator of the tribunal has been condemned to death by his own invention. That Danton is not universally popular among the people however is made clear in the prison scene when one prisoner rejoices in the fact that though he may be executed soon, so will Danton. Now sentenced to death, Danton is convinced that without him there everything will collapse within 3 months and there will be nothing but terror. While Danton is sent to spend his last hours in prison, Robespierre lies in bed deathlike pulling the sheet over his face like a shroud.
Even at the end Danton plays to the gallery. On the scaffold he asks the executioner to show the people his head as it’s worth it. Robespierre’s close ally, an elated Saint Just, assures Robespierre that now Danton is dead and more importantly, that the people have allowed the execution to take place, Robespierre can now accept the dictatorship. Robespierre is horrified realising that all the ideals he believed in up to now have collapsed and that a dictatorship will be necessary. The film ends with a young boy spouting ideals of the revolution which he has learnt by rote and with no understanding of their meaning, whist Robespierre lies, as if on his deathbed, realising that the Revolution and Republic are likewise dying.
Though not depicted in the film Danton’s prophecy proved true and Robespierre and Saint Just were executed a few months later. Although this time without even a trial in accordance with the prejudicial legal system they themselves had established for their enemies. Danton is a great movie, giving a kind of behind the scenes look into the machinations behind political trials, the danger of being a slave to abstract ideals whilst forgetting that most vital of qualities – humanity. It’s also a marvellous bravado performance by Gérard Depardieu. Sadly, now more likely to be in the newspapers in the UK as some kind of joke figure, Danton is a perfect reminder of what a great actor he can be. Nowadays it’s hard to find actors who can portray men of the ilk of Danton. This is one reason why when I see a modern day production of Anthony and Cleopatra, I rarely see an Anthony I actually believe in. It’s hard to believe the actor is embodying someone whose “legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm, Crested the world” when you get the feeling they have a better moisturising routine then yourself. With Depardieu there is no such worry. He gives a sense of the great man and the reason why he was so dangerous to his fellow revolutionaries and also how world history can turn on a sixpence. Those perennial questions what if.. What if he had succeeded in removing Robespierre instead?
Also watching it some 30 years later I realise how relevant the film is despite the Soviet-backed Eastern block countries having long gone. The film raises intriguing questions about due process, the rule of the law and the danger that if you unleash terror in the name of democracy it has a nasty habit of biting the hand that feeds it.