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.
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.