Legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda passed yesterday at age 90. A prominent member of the “Polish Film School” movement, which lasted from the mid ’50s to ’63 or thereabouts, Wajda was best known for Man of Iron, although his breakout happened with a war trilogy released in the mid to late ’50s– A Generation (’54), Kanał (’56) and Ashes and Diamonds (’58).
Four Wajda films were nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar — The Promised Land (’75), The Maids of Wilko (’79), Man of Iron (’81) and Katyń (’07).
Danton is a harrowing drama about the infamous reign of terror in post-revolutionary France that lasted from September 1793 to July ’94. I’ve seen it two or three times, and will always remember the vivid writing, the bold performances (particularly Gerard Depardieu‘s as Georges Danton) and the mesmerizing recreations of 18th Century Paris.
Regarded by some as an allusion to the battle between Polish Solidarity and the doctrinaire Communists who ran Poland and repressed and penalized Lech Walesa and his Solidarity cohorts in order to hold onto power, Danton is basically about the clash between two revolutionary leaders, Danton and Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak), and the many guilllotine deaths that resulted on both sides.
Trust me — there are solid parallels between what’s depicted in Danton and the p.c. terror campaigns that we occasionally see on Twitter.
Danton is earthy, ribald, impassioned and perhaps a wee bit corruptible, but also an advocate of moderation and compassion in the handing of so-called enemies of the revolution. Robespierre is exacting, scrupulous, fastidious and morally demanding in a revolutionary sense, and from this comes to regard Danton’s moderation as a betrayal of the Revolution, which leads to strenuous efforts to slice off his head.
“Without stretching things too much, Mr. Wajda presents us with a Danton who is the articulate conscience of the Revolution, someone, perhaps, not entirely unlike Lech Walesa, the popular spokesman of Poland’s Solidarity movement,” Vincent Canby wrote in his 9.28.83 N.Y. Times review.
“On the other hand, Robespierre is seen as being completely removed from the practical needs and real feelings of the people, a stern father-figure of a dictator, a man who doesn’t hesitate to approve the murder of thousands of people for the fatherland’s ultimate good.”
In an interview in Le Monde, Mr. Wajda denied all associations between 18th-century France and 20th-century Poland, though he did say that Danton represents the West and Robespierre the East.
All supporters of Danton (with the exception of Bourdon) are played by French actors, while Robespierre’s allies are played by Poles.
[Portions of this article were originally posted on 3.16.09.]