Danton and the French Revolution; between DW Griffith and Soviet Russia

In his introduction to Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, a collection of Maximilien Robespierre’s speeches and writings during the French Revolution, published in 2007 through Verso Press, Slavoj Žižek quotes the dictum ‘every history is a history of the present’. He is right to quote it; few historical events are as likely to be interpreted through the prism of prevalent political consensus as the French Revolution.

‘Our story is of two little orphans who suffer first through the tyranny of Kingly bosses, nobles and aristocrats. After the king’s government falls they suffer with the rest of the people as much through the new government, established by the pussy-footing Robespierre through Anarchy and Bolshevism. Strange that both these evil rulers were otherwise highly moral men except that they saw evil in all who did not THINK AS THEY DID. The lesson – the French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism’.

So states the intertitles at the beginning of DW Griffith’s silent epic of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm. As a statement, this is about as bold and unequivocal as a filmmaker can be about the political intent of his film. Released in 1921, Orphans of the Storm is a remake of the lost Theda Bara film The Two Orphans, released in 1915. Lillian and Dorothy Gish play two orphans who find themselves in Paris during the Revolution, running afoul variously of lecherous aristocrats and characters of the revolution, including Robespierre, who eventually sends Lillian Gish and her lover to the guillotine.

The referral in the intertitles to ‘Bolshevism’ means that as much as it is a film about the French Revolution, it is equally a film about what Žižek calls the ‘most traumatic event of the 20th century’, the October Revolution, and personalities and events from France in 1789 are manipulated and made to resemble those of Russia in 1917.The last sentence of the intertitle already forms a connection between the proponents of revolutionary terror in France and the Bolsheviks of Russia, warning against any attempt at ‘Bolshevism’ in America.

Griffith was not a mad voice in a crowd. In the years immediately following the October Revolution, Americans were seized by an almost constant fear of a repeat event in their own country, spurred on by the overenthusiastic paranoia of Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Attorney General of the United States from 1919-1921. An earlier incarnation of Senator McCarthy, and a far more succesful one at that, Palmer fanned the flames of what is now known as the First Red Scare, initiating mass searches, arrests, and deportations of suspected radicals. Where McCarthy blacklisted obscure screenwriters and classified Charlie Chaplin as a threat to national security, Palmer was shipping hundreds of radicals, mostly guilty of nothing other than ‘being’ radicals, including the famous anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, ‘back’ to revolutionary Russia. Through the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm shows us the violent birth of 20th century communism, and at the same time expresses the early paranoia of ‘reds’ that America was to suffer for the next century.

If Orphans of the Storm is the birth, Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 release Danton documents the death, and the host for this allegory is Georges Danton, Jacobin and revolutionary leader. Once an ally of Robespierre, the film documents Danton’s unease with the excesses of the Terror, his eventual opposition to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, the de facto government of France during the Terror, and his execution because of it in 1794. Wajda is as bold as Griffith in telling the audience that what they are watching is a political allegory of a modern issue, that the film is not about Paris in 1794, but Poland in 1983. We can safely say that Danton, played spectacularly by Gérard Depardieu, represents the Solidarność movement struggling against the Soviet-backed Polish state, which is represented in Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, who, symbolically, are portrayed by Polish actors who spoke Polish during filming, and were later dubbed into French.

In Danton, characterisation reflects the popular struggle against the Polish state. If history exists so that one day cinema can be made of it, Danton would have existed for the sole reason that Depardieu would play him. Danton is hulking, larger than life, full of bombast, an insurrectionary bon vivant with a taste for good living and fine dining, in comparison to the stern, prim, mathematical and cold Robespierre, the personification of austere Socialist Realism, and his wild-eyed and fanatical ally Saint-Just. Robespierre’s pre-revolutionary background of a country lawyer gives a mirror image in 1983; had there been no revolution (1789) or revolutionary crisis (1983) we could easily see him being still a quiet country lawyer, or a factory accountant in some industrial backwater of socialist Poland, extolling the virtues of rationing to his fellow workers. Robespierre is always the man summoned by history. If Danton is the freedom loving Polish people, Robespierre is the cold bureaucrat of the Polish state, while Saint-Just could equally be a young, unhinged ideologue of the Party of 1983.

In a marvellous scene we see this chasm mapped out; Danton has invited Robespierre to dinner, a first meeting between the two since his brief retirement from revolutionary Paris, which we see him return to at the beginning of the film. Danton intends to convince Robespierre that if the Terror is continued, the people will rise against the revolution, and that it should be ended so that they may continue with a less-bloody revolution as allies. We see him nervously flapping around various intricate dishes that have been prepared for Robespierre, upbraiding his supporters for having put the wrong flowers on the dining table, ‘He only likes blue flowers’, eager to impress his old friend. Robespierre arrives late, treats the meeting like a political mediation instead of a meeting of old friends, and declines food, leading Danton to fly into a rage and upbraid him for his coldness and unmanliness, and his distance from the people – ‘They say you’ve never had a woman’, he shouts, ‘You know nothing of the people’. Danton is the colourful freedom fighter, a man of the people, while Robespierre is the distant bureaucrat of the state machinery. This is Danton as a doomed version of Solidarność, who instead of perishing on the guillotine in Paris as Danton did, are rotting in the Soviet prisons in the depths of Krakow in 1983. But, as the communist states eventually fall in 1989, so too do Robespierre and his allies, executed after the coup of 9 Thermidor in 1794.

Žižek sums up the modern liberal attitude to the French Revolution as ‘1789 without 1793’; an appreciation for the overthrow of a despotic monarchy and aristocratic class, and for the values of modern democracy that the revolution gave birth to, but an abhorrence of the revolutionary excesses of the Jacobins and the Terror. He argues that without 1793, the ‘zero level of Jacobinism through which the fundamentals of democracy are established’, any talk of the democratic plus-points for liberals of 1789 becomes invalidated, as the revolution would almost certainly have failed, or been defeated. Then, the revolution becomes a product without its vital essence, or devolved of its harmful ingredient; like non-alcoholic beer, a ‘decaffeinated revolution’.

Orphans of the Storm is without a doubt a product of this attitude, albeit in the harsher climate of a rabid American anti-communism. Griffith’s intertitles talk of the exploitative and despotic nature of the monarchy, but also condemns Robespierre and the Jacobins. Danton also plays a major role in Griffith’s film, and in an attempt to find a plausible figure to represent his middle-ground, a completely fictional Danton is manufactured and created as a character who is a sober opponent of oppression, be it Royalist or Jacobin, opposed to both Kings and Terror in equal measure. Early on we see him chinwagging congenially with Thomas Jefferson, who is apparently in France as a diplomat, and the Marquis de Lafayette, a moderate royalist during the revolution who argued the case for a constitutional monarchy. A more historically accurate meeting between Danton and Lafayette would have been on July 17 1791, when Danton led a crowd against the National Constituent Assembly after they had decreed that the monarchy would remain in place, which was fired upon on the Champ de Mars on orders from Lafayette, leaving dozens dead.

What we get in Orphans of the Storm is a Danton twisted and distorted almost beyond recognition. Later, he is referred to as the ‘Abraham Lincoln of France’, and at one point witnesses a benevolent aristocrat distributing bread to the poor, and sadly tells him, ‘If more of the aristocrats were like you, things would be different’. Paralleling the dominant ideology of our times, whereby liberals may acknowledge the unjust nature of capitalist society, and have been handwringing over it since the economic crisis of 2008, but believe any fundamental shift in the structure of society to be unrealistic, and prefer instead tweaking reforms; Griffith believes that France would have been safe in the hands of a reformed and paternalistic aristocracy.

In the midst of exploitative aristocrats and marauding, fanatical sans-culottes, Danton is Griffith’s stabilising factor in the midst of chaos. He has equal distaste for both the aristocracy and the brutality of the fanatical sans-culottes who we see rampaging over Paris, fighting with soldiers, and wielding oversized butcher’s knives and sickles. Equally condemned is the figure of Robespierre, who in Griffith’s interpretation  we can take to represent Lenin.

When not leading a revolutionary crowd in Orphans of the Storm, Danton is quiet and reflective, not quite the bombastic ‘tribune of the people’, a thundering one at that, we see in Wajda’s film, which presents an overall more truthful version of Danton. When finally charged and dragged before the Revolutionary Tribunel in Danton, ostensibly for financial misdeeds, but equally for his opposition to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, Danton is reminded, and acknowledges, that he himself had been instrumental in forming the Revolutionary Tribunel the previous year, which had been used to try and and send to the guillotine countless political enemies. This acknowledgement is important, and leads us to remember that Danton was no political innocent, he was a Jacobin, he had voted for the execution of the King, he sat alongside his friend Robespierre and the bloodthirsty Jean-Paul Marat as a member of The Mountain, the most radical group of the National Convention, so-called because they would occupy the high benches of the debating chamber, he had participated in the suppression of the moderate Girondist faction, and he had been instrumental in founding the Committee of Public Safety and had served as its first President.

Danton has long been a staple of literature, he has featured in as many novels, poems and plays as Robespierre himself, and the reason for this could be that he is one of the few figures of the French Revolution who fulfill both the aesthetic, and especially Romantic, ideal of the passionate revolutionary, the crusader for the people, and a safe ideological figure, free from the stain of tyranny in his eventual opposition to Robespierre and the excesses of the Terror. Other figures of the Revolution are unpalatable for various reasons and have been defined as such; the Girondins and other moderates are passionless, dull, and compromising, Lafayette was disgraced, Jean-Paul Marat is a psychopath, Saint-Just is the bloodthirsty fanatic, and Robespierre the calculating tyrant. Danton, or a whitewashed version of his character, ticks all the boxes for a literary ideal where others do not, and it is this version we see in Orphans of the Storm. In turn, when he is designated the ‘Abraham Lincoln of France’, a preposterous comparison if there was one, Danton is again manipulated to represent the figure of the pure and just American democracy, standing up against the revolutionary excesses of the young Soviet Russia.

Žižek recounts a popular anecdote about the Chinese prime minister, Zhou Enlai, that when asked his thoughts on the French Revolution, he answered, ‘It is still too early to tell’. It is now thought that he was misquoted and was instead referring to the 1968 upheavels, and this is a shame, not only for the loss of poetry from the statement, but because it is true; in 1921 the French Revolution is interpreted through DW Griffith and America’s anti-communism as a warning against ‘Bolshevism’ and the spread of communism, its 1983 version is that of the fall of Robespierre mirroring the eventual fall of the Soviet-backed Polish state, and in the West, in our time, we see it interpreted through the liberal democratic prism of ‘1789 without 1793’. The French Revolution continues to be twisted and manipulated to reflect the dominant ideology of the present, it is the ultimate ‘history of the present’.

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1 Comment

Filed under film, history, politics

One response to “Danton and the French Revolution; between DW Griffith and Soviet Russia

  1. emyers

    fascinatuing

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