Andrzej Wajda, Danton (1982) 2 hrs 16 mins

Date Created: 2 August, 2016
Revised: 2 August, 2016

The Director: Andrzej Wajda (1926-)


Andrzej Wajda is one of Poland's leading post-war filmmakers whose work introduced modern Polish cinema to the West. During the occupation of Poland by the Nazis in WW2 1940-43 he worked at a number of odd jobs before joining the resistance, the A.K. or Home Army of the exiled Polish government. After the war he studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow 1945-48 and the High School of Cinematography in Lodz 1950-52 before becoming assistant to director Aleksandr Ford in 1954. In addition to making a number of insightful films about the problem of the resistance against the Nazis and the transformation of Polish society under communism, he worked on a number of collaborative projects with Western European directors and TV. When martial law was imposed in 1981 his film studio was disbanded as he was seen as too sympathetic to the independent trade union movement "Solidarity". He moved to France and began work on a film in 1982 about another revolution which turned violently against the people it was supposed to liberate from tyranny - Danton . In 1989 (the bicentenary of the French Revolution) Wajda was elected as a representative of Solidarity to the Polish parliament and retired from film-making.


  • trilogy on WW2 and the resistance: A Generation (1955), Kanal (1957), Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
  • a film about Poland on the eve of the invasion Lotna (1960)
  • Ashes (1965) - on Poland during the Napoleonic wars
  • on the experience of a Polish poet in concentration camps during and immediately after the war Landscape after Battle (1970)
  • his analysis of the problems of modern Polish society - Man of Marble (1978) and Man of Iron (1981)
  • his analysis of the tug-of-war which takes place between revolutionary leaders - Danton (1982)

The Film

Literary Source

Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere, Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland et al. Based on a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska, The Danton Affair (1931) which Wajda had staged at least 3 times before.

Meaning of the Title

The title is taken from the play "The Danton Affair" and suggests that Danton and his downfall is the main focus of attention. Yet, it might be more accurate to have called the film "Danton vs. Robespierre" since the conflict between the two men, their political rivalry and their different conceptions of the role of violence in the French Revolution are major themes in the film.


  • Gerard Depardieu - Georges Danton (1759-1794)
  • Wojciech Pszoniak - Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-1794)
  • Patrice Chereau - Camille Desmoulins
  • Angela Winkler - Lucile Desmoulins
  • Boguslaw Linda - Saint Just
  • Roland Blanche - Lacroix
  • Anne Alvaro - Eleonore Duplay
  • Roger Planchon - Fouquier Tinville
  • Serge Merlin - Philippeaux
  • Franciszek Starowieyski - Jacques Louis David
  • Emanuelle Debever - Louison Danton

Historical Background

Joint Polish/French production. Set in France during the Terror in 1794. Danton returns from exile in the countryside (an estate perhaps bought with funds corruptly acquired) to challenge the Committee of Public Safety, led by Robespierre, and its violent policies of Terror and war. Danton's oratorical skills make him an "enemy of the republic" in Robespierre's eyes and thus he must be got rid of in a show trial and public execution (by Guillotine on 16 Germinal or 5 April 1794).

The historical context in which the film was made is important. Poland in the early 1980s saw a challenge to the Stalinist system and the monopoly of power of the Communist Party which had been in place since WW2. Dissidents sought trade unions independent of the state and party ("Solidarity"), political democracy, freedom of speech, prosperity for ordinary people. In 1981 General Jarulszelski seized power under threat of a Soviet invasion (like 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslavakia). The Communist revolutions of 1948/49 in Eastern Europe were made in the name of the people and freedom but ended in dictatorship and murder of opposition. Violence was justified during the transition to socialism/communism to create "new socialist man", destroy all remnants of the old order (mixture of liberal, fascist, Catholic and traditional rural elites), destroy internal enemies (purges and show trials of Cold War period). Show trials in late 1940s and early 1950s were used to purge Communist party of Titoist elements - independent communists who followed Yugoslav model.

Overall theme is that violent revolutions made in the name of the people (whether Jacobin or communist) produce a worse tyranny than that which they sought to replace. A just end never justifies the use of unjust means. Revolutions, like Saturn, consume their own children (see Goya's painting).


"Andrzej Wajda" in World Film Directors. Volume 2, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), pp. 1148-55.

Entry "Andrzej Wajda" in Wikipedia <>.

Entry "Danton" in Wikipedia <>

Mrs. B. Urgolsikova, "Andrzej Wajda" in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Volume 2 Directors/Filmmakers, ed. Christopher Lyon (London: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 567-570.

Robert Darnton, "Danton," in Past Imperfect: History according to the Movies, ed. Mark C. Carnes (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), pp. 104-109.

Robert Darnton, "Film: Danton and Double Entendre," The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections on Cultural History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), pp. 37-52.


  • The look of Paris in 1793-4 during the Terror. Radical phase of the French Revolution after the liberal Girondin faction defeated and the rise to power of the Radical Jacobin Committee of Public Safety (Robespierre and 12 others).
  • War against the French Revolution in 1792 led to militarization of French society and an attempt to seek out and destroy "internal enemies" as well as aristocrats, speculators (who avoided the price controls known as the Maximum and rationing), liberals, spies of foreign conservative monarchies. Note food queues.
  • Struggle between Danton and Robespierre over the direction the French Revolution should take. Robespierre, "the incorruptible" revolutionary, is ruthless in destroying all vestiges of the ancien régime in order to protect the revolution. The end (democratic Jacobin republic) justifies the means used (murder, terror, despotism). Danton is a demogogic figure who has doubts. To him, the revolution was begun in the name of freedom yet had turned into its opposite. Irony of using force to make people be free and happy. Note scene where a young boy is forced to learn by rote the first 4 articles of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen" and his punished by slaps for his mistakes.
  • The activities of the painter Jacques-Louis David to depict the leaders of the revolution and public events in order to provide them with legitimacy. Robespierre posing in ancient Roman costume for a portrait, the (Stalinist-like) removal of depictions of enemies of the republic. David sitting in his window sketching Danton going to the scaffold.
  • The political processes of the revolution - speeches in the National Convention, political show trial of dissidents, behind the scenes scheming by committees of the new ruling elite, the journals and magazines published by different political factions.
  • The parallels Wajda draws between Leninism and the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (by the vanguard communist party in order to create a new socialist society) and the radical Jacobinsm of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety (to create a virtuous republic of patriots)
  • an illustration of the British liberal historian Lord Acton's maxim that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely".