The Revolution Seen Through a Glass Darkly | The Nation


The Revolution Seen Through a Glass Darkly

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A film beginning with a shot of a little boy being beaten for not having learned the Declaration of the Rights of Man by heart, and closing in the overwhelming shadow of the guillotine, provides an opportunity to preach a sermon on the vanity of all revolutions. It is a golden opportunity if the director is famous and comes in from the cold, allowing the Russian Revolution to be damned together with-the French. No wonder Danton, the latest film of the Polish director Andrzej Wajda, got a great deal of politically motivated praise here in Paris. (Wajda, incidentally, received a César--the French equivalent of an Oscar--as the best director of the year.) But the film also provoked controversy. In France the 1789 Revolution is no longer regarded as a bogy. It has been admitted, though in a bowdlerized version, into the national heritage. Wajda's hopeless vision of that upheaval was bound to shock, and it came under attack from the left. Elsewhere, the film may not meet the same kind of opposition; hence this letter, written not by a film critic but by somebody unfashionably interested in the radical transformation of society.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Since I am going to be highly critical of Wajda's Danton, with its antirevolutionary message, let me disclaim at once some of the possible reasons for hostility. I am not against Solidarity, and I viewed the rebirth of the Polish labor movement from 1970 on as one of the few rays of hope on the political horizon. I have nothing against Wajda, either. I am an admirer of the sweep and subtlety of the director of Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds. I disagreed with those who called Promised Land, his film about the industrialization of Lodz (the Polish Manchester), anti-Semitic. I thought that the principal characters-a German, a Polish Jew and a Polish Catholic-were equally revolting specimens of capitalists; all of them exuded the ugly smell of success.

Actually, Promised Land contained a different political message. It was Wajda looking backward rather than forward. The film's ending--a strike in which many workers are shot-seemed tacked on, unrelated to what had come before. It was what the French call "hair in the soup." Wajda more successfully and less melodramatically contrasted capitalistic corruption with the nostalgically drawn figures of the hero's fiancee and his father. Though historically doomed, the minor nobility, the szlachta, seemed pure and beautiful by comparison. Wajda's indictment of the degrading power of money in Promised Land had more in common with Crime and Punishment than with Das Kapital.

His monumental Man of Marble, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of socialist realism in the true and not Zhdanovian sense of the term. Wajda did not blink at the evils of Stalinism in Poland as he related the saga of Mateusz Birkut, the sincere Stakhanovite, from his youth in the early days of postwar reconstruction to his violent .death in the Lenin Shipyard revolt in 1970: Bat the film is finally a tribute to the Polish working class. Wajda, like Birkut, who in one scene votes' the party ticket despite the government's shortcomings as the peasants in his native village watch, appeared to have faith that his country would somehow emerge from the Stalinist night. The glorious summer of 1980, when Solidarity was formed, vindicated that faith.

Wajda's next film, Man of Iron, though artistically less successful than Man of Marble, is a moving portrayal of the beginning of the Solidarity movement. It tells of Birkut's son, Tomczyk, and his contemporaries, a generation to whom, briefly, everything seemed possible. Then General Jaruzelski's tanks rolled into Warsaw and Solidarity's flame was snuffed out. Wajda's hopes were shattered, and his bitter disappointment has colored his vision of the French Revolution in Danton.

There is nothing wrong with looking at the past through the prism of the present. One can try to learn from history, and one can also impose on it the lessons of one's own experience. The French Revolution provides a striking example of this two-way process, this interaction between past and present. The Bolsheviks often argued passionately by analogy. They were haunted by the reign of the guillotine and feared a Thermidorian reaction (taken from 9 Thermidor, or July 27, 1794, the date of the coup that brought Robespierre down), to be followed by an advent of Bonapartism. But the Russian Revolution also had an impact on the interpretation of its French predecessor. The conflict between the radical "Mountain" and the moderate Girondists was understood in the light of the clash between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. And the rise of the Byzantine cult of Stalin, whose extermination of opponents on both the left and the right had. to be justified, meant that Communists had to contribute to the cult of Robespierre.

These historical debates are not remote from Danton. Wajda's film is based on a play first performed in 193 1, The Danton Affair, by Stanislawa Przybyszewska. At the time she wrote the play, Przybyszewska was a Communist sympathizer. According to the rumor in Paris, The Danton Affair was pro-Robespierre. Wajda, however, altered it to make Danton the hero.

But Wajda's film does not proclaim Vive Danton; it is too busy cursing all revolutions. Also, to my mind at least, the French actor Gérard Depardieu, who plays Danton, is utterly bewildering. True, Danton too was mighty and had a stentorian voice. Yet there is a difference between an attorney having the shape of a football player and a football player playing the role of an attorney, especially if he clowns his way through the part. At the end, when he tells the executioner, "Show my head to the people, it is worth looking at," one is left wondering how this rather grotesque person became a major figure in the revolutionary drama.

But the weakness of the film does not lie in the casting. The central flaw is Wajda's omission of the historical backdrop. The historian Jules Michelet argued that the Revolution "could not stop terror, when the whole world was applying it against France.'' But in the film, there is nothing about the war with Britain; there is nothing about the conflict between the old feudal order and the rising bourgeoisie, nothing about religious tensions or the curious alliance between the new propertied class and the have-nots of the Commune of Paris. There are a few shots of people standing in line, but there are virtually no crowd scenes. The film lacks a social echo, and without it, the speeches in the National Convention (which are drawn from contemporary documents) sound hollow. The guillotine is working madly in the void.

It will be objected that Wajda's intention was not to make a historical epic. He could have just as validly filmed a dramatized play, focusing on the personal confrontation between Robespierre, ruthless and incorruptible, bent on carrying the Revolution forward at any price, and Danton, the moderate, seeking to halt the terror and the social change. Such a version, though oversimplified, would have made some sense.

But Wajda makes no attempt to explain these two men. Ideology is conspicuous by its absence. This lacuna shows up most strikingly in the way Robespierre's supporter Saint-Just is portrayed in the film. This extraordinary young man, known as the "archangel of death," argued that "to make a revolution by half is to dig one's own tomb" but also that "happiness is a new idea in Europe." In the film, Saint-Just is a nonentity. Robespierre himself is not clearly defined. He makes one interesting remark-that if Danton is not killed the Revolution is finished, but if he is it is also doomed--but this thought is never developed or explained further.

Quite apart from my dislike of Depardieu's interpretation of Danton, the character is given little of importance to say. In a central scene, he mocks Robespierre as a man who knows nothing-about the people and proclaims himself their representative. Actually, both men were middle-class lawyers with similar backgrounds. To understand why they stood together at first: and eventually parted company one would have to examine the conflicts between the factions of the French bourgeoisie at various stages in the Revolution. But Wajda does not really care about this, since he regards the entire revolutionary process as sinister and absurd.

Are the shots of people standing in bread lines the only Polish connection in the film? During showings of Danton in Warsaw, passages like the one in which Danton's alIy Desmoulins hails freedom of the press will certainly stir the audience. .But otherwise, Poles will see little that bears directly on their problems. One might read into Wajda's depiction of Robespierre, rigid and dressed fastidiously, a reference to General Jaruzelski, who stands ramrod straight and who is always spick-and-span, but coincidence is a likelier explanation. It would be an insult to Wajda to suggest that he equated Poland's miserable military dictator with a major figure of the French Revolution. We must accept his public denials of all such Analogies at face value. Indeed, the only possible connection with Poland is the filmmaker's own disillusionment, which resulted in the bias that dominates the film from start to finish.

In Wajda's version of the French Revolution, it is not the Catholic Church which is pushing its catechism down the' throats of poor, innocent kids. Rather it is the government that force-feeds them the Declaration of the Rights of Man. His Revolution shatters no social barriers, frees no peasants, gives no hope to the have-nots. It is reduced to the image of the guillotine. It takes as its text Vergnaud's hackneyed dictum about revolutions, like Saturn, devouring their children, without trying to explain why this is so. It is difficult to understand why Danton (or Trotsky for that matter, if you care to make the dubious historical analogy) did not fight back earlier and more successfully unless one take into account the counterrevolutionary forces gathering behind him. Recall his common struggle with Robespierre not just against the monarchy but also against the left, against the Enragés months earlier and the Hébertists days earlier. Without the historical background, the slaughter on the screen leaves the spectator cold; one is a mere onlooker watching beautifully filmed images. How could a great director have so little to say? And more important, did the events of the Revolution, as Danton suggests, all happen without rhyme or reason?

After seeing the movie, I returned home and went immediately to the shelves of my library where I keep my collection of books on the French Revolution. I found many conflicting theories about why it failed, reflecting the political views of the historians. Only Michelet, whose facts are sometimes questionable but whose insights are fascinating and whose writing is superb, offers any surprises. Alphonse Aulard, who did so much research with revolutionary documents, was a radical of the Third Republic who attempted to show that the Revolution was the precursor of the progressive bourgeois republic. His sympathies were with Danton, which was not uncommon among pro-revolutionary French historians. (Robespierre was never admitted into the republican pantheon. The British establishment may be more ashamed of its head chopping and its Glorious Revolution, but there are probably more Cromwell Roads in Britain than streets bearing the name of Robespierre in France.

In the next generation of historians on the left there were Albert Mathiez and his school. They believed that Danton had sold out-that he was in the pay of the Court and then of the British. In their eyes, Robespierre could do no wrong, even when he attacked the plebeians of Paris, under the theory, often revived, that the ultraleft served the Revolution's enemies. But the extremists-the "wild ones," Jacques Roux, Varlet, the Enragés, Babeuf and his Conspiracy of Equals-also have their defenders. At the beginning of this century, Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, wrote of the Revolution from the angle of peasants and urban have-nots, and just after World War 11, Daniel Guerin published his ambitious Class Struggles Under the First Republic. Both Kropotkin and Guerin portrayed the "ultras" as the forerunners of a genuine socialist revolution. In addition to these interpretations there are the socialist history of Jean Jaurès and the more recent works of Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul. So there is much to choose from and, for anyone but a reactionary, no need to go back to bloodthirsty gods and the vision of revolution as a malediction.

Only on two points is there any need for revision--the present catching up with the past. First, it was once easy for a Marxist to explain away the irrational aspects of the French Revolution by saying it was a bourgeois upheaval, an alliance between property holders and proletarians. Such a coalition was bound to come apart. Equality cannot be established through a conspiracy. The most progressive elements, representing the urban poor and the peasants, could not carry the day because society was not ripe for their victory as a class. Because of its contradictions, the Revolution had to masquerade in Roman disguises. A true socialist revolution, Marxists said, would avoid such travesties. It would be democratic, supported by a majority of the exploited; it would act and speak rationally; it would require no guillotine and fear no Thermidor. We know what actually happened in the Russian Revolution, and to say that a socialist revolution was not supposed to take place in a backward country is not an adequate explanation of its betrayal of socialist ideals.

The first point leads to the second. There was a time when it seemed sufficient to argue that revolutions should fight their enemies and not devour their children, that they are justified in attacking the right and mistaken in attacking the left. But once the mincing machine is set in motion it keeps on chopping, and that compels us to re-examine such concepts as the party, the active minority, the revolutionary vanguard; to ponder the links between ends and means, between the way power is seized and the way it is exercised. But to re-examine does not mean to give up 0.r to yield to the fashionable hypocrisy of abstract moralizing. To reappraise the revolutionary results need not mean idealizing France's ancien régirne, Czarist Russia or Pilsudski's Poland; it does not mean forgetting war, imperialism and foreign intervention or stressing the "red" terror while ignoring the "white" terror. As Brecht put it: "One blames the swift current for, its violence, but no one speaks of any violence when the banks tighten the current between them. " The left has every reason to initiate a debate about the differences between reform and revolution, about the efficacy of change from above versus upheaval from below--provided that it is not dragged into enemy territory and into that never-never land outside the realm of history where all cheats can be preachers. For 'understandable reasons, Adrzej Wajda seems to have been led astray into this land of distorted abstraction.

Eighteenth-century France will continue to fascinate students of revolution. Only five years elapsed between the fall of the Bastille and the death of Robespierre. During this short span of time alliances were forged and broken, men popped up and disappeared against a background of tremendous social change. It all happened so quickly that the main actors were youngsters compared with the rulers of present-day "postrevolutionary" societies. ' According to Michelet's History of the French Revolution, Desmoulins was 33 when he went to the guillotine, "the age of Jesus the sans-culotte." And Danton-"I am thirty-five," he said before his death. "My abode tomorrow will be nothingness; my name will remain in the pantheon of history." (In fact, I Desmoulins was '34 when he was executed, and Danton was not yet 35.)

The seething drama of the French Revolution has captured the imagination of playwright; as well as historians. Surprisingly, it has attracted few great filmmakers. It figures only episodically in Abel Gance's Napoleon and is reduced to the role of a mild ancestor of the Popular Front in Jean Renoir's La Marseillaise. Was Wajda fit to fill the gap? Certainly not in his despondent mood. He would have had a better chance of succeeding if he had understood that all politics in the Soviet bloc have been post-Thermidorian for a very long time. In this phase, Jaruzelski stands for despotic rule, and the shipyard workers of Gdansk--like the Parisian "ultras--are the forerunners of the revolutions of tomorrow.

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