Polish director Andrzej Wajda, the most celebrated East European moviemaker, says his new film, "Danton," is not an analogy for Poland's military crackdown.
The Poles know better.
The move, a joint French-Polish production about a month in the French Revolution when terror got the better of justice, opened recently in Warsaw, a few weeks after its French premiere. And Polish audiences, trained by centuries of censorship to see subtle parallels, to detect defiance of tyranny in the most remote subjects, are not having to work very hard to draw connections to their own situation.
Poland's censors haven't snipped anything from the film, which was made in France, presumably because the government would be the last to acknowledge that the depiction of France's revolutionary Committee of Public Security as desperate, ruthless and perverse is a reflection on itself.
But the official Polish press, resentful of Wajda as a seasoned critic of the Warsaw regime, has sought through a cacophony of reviews to discredit the movie by labeling it a false picture of history.
"Danton" tells the story of the French revolutionary Georges Jacques Danton, who tried to wrest power from Robespierre during the Reign of Terror but was ultimately sentenced to death in 1794 by the very tribunal he helped to establish. In Wajda's version, it is a tale of two opposing egos and visions -- those of Danton, who wanted to stop the revolution because he believed each step was leading farther from the original ideals, versus those of Robespierre, who was ready to push the upheaval to extreme limits lest it fail.
At a viewing the other night in a downtown Warsaw cinema, laughter rippled through the audience at the point in the move when Robespierre and fellow committee members sign the orders to "intern" Danton and several friends at the Luxembourg Prison. The reference to internment triggered the memory of the Dec. 13, 1981, martial-law roundup of Solidarity union activists in Poland.
The audience broke into applause later when one of those interned in the film observed sardonically that politics is governed by rules that having nothing to do with justice. And there was laughter again when Robespierre commented dispassionately to his wife that the prosecution of the popular Danton presented a dilemma. "If we lose it," he states, "the revolution is lost. But if we win, the same is true." Polish Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski could well have said the same when moving against Solidarity's leadership.
It is impossible to show a film in Poland today that deals with such topics as freedom, conscience and revolution without evoking a powerful response. "We are most painfully going through our own tragic history," remarked the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny in a thoughtful review of "Danton." "Starving for history's true shape, we greedily hunt for any analogies that would make it topical."
At the moment, the film is playing at just two Warsaw theaters, though a Wajda aide said 40 copies of the movie are being made for distribution throughout Poland. No advertising has been permitted for the film. Full-house audiences are being drawn to it by word of mouth and thanks to the unfailing power of negative official reviews to arouse public interest.
The fact that the film is being permitted her at all may be explained in part by the financial investment the Warsaw government has in it. Poland invested several hundred thousand dollars through a coproduction arrangement with the French, who contributed about $500,000.
Then, too, as one student remarked going into a performance: "Letting the movie play here probably is meant to demonstrate the government's liberal side."
It serves a certain propaganda purpose as well, providing a convenient target to belittle Wajda. Even before film critics here had a chance to view the film, they started writing about it, parroting many of the negative comments that the movie precipitated in France. There, it prompted an uproar among leftists who faulted the movie for a lack of historical accuracy.
The socialist government of French President Francois Mitterrand also did not appreciate the film's uncomplimentary portrayal of Robespierre, a forefather for the French left -- particularly coming as it did within weeks of important municipal elections in France.
Wajda indeed portrays Danton as a hero, to the detriment of Robespierre. He added enough whitener to Danton's character to blot out references to the profits scandal that surrounded him or to the blood stains on his hands for the executions and terror he backed earlier.
Robespierre actually had been the favored one in the play by Polish writer Stanislawa Przbyszewska, which Wajda directed in Warsaw in the mid-1970s. Written between the two world wars, the play was inspired by the then-current Communist view that urged the revolution on despite the terrible price in lives and suffering. Stopping short of ultimate victory, the argument went, would fail to win power for the masses.
The hardline Polish army paper, Zolnierz Wolnosci, insinuated in one review that Wajda had fiddled with French history to lace the movie with some highly nuanced anti-Polish propaganda.
"It's worth remembering," said the paper, "that production of the film, which was supposed to start in Poland, was moved to Paris [because of the imposition of martial law]. Everything was happening during a period in which the press of capitalist countries was doing anything to adjust the image of Poland to images invented by western special services."
In response, Wajda has justified tidying up Danton's image in the interest of sharpening the conflict of revolutionary personalities and creating a movie that is less about one particular revolution than it is about the general process of revolution. Danton is played large, lusty and dissipated by the french actor Gerard Depardieu, while Robespierre is portrayed by the Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak as pale, zealous and ascetic.
Denying the movie is a metaphor for events in Poland, Wajda has brushed aside suggestions that Danton is intended to be former Solidarity union chief Lech Walesa and Robespierre is Jaruzelski. There is nothing overt in the film to signify a comparison to Poland.
Still, Wajda, whose penchant is to tell political stories, has also said that what he witnessed in Poland during the Solidarity era helped him understand the revolutionary mechanism and spirit portrayed in "Danton."
His latest film is certainly more allegorical and politically discreet than his blunt "Man of Iron," which chronicled the 1980 Gdansk shipyard strike that gave rise to Solidarity, or than the penetrating "Man of Marble," a shaded account of the Polish workers' struggle. "Danton" evokes the Polish experience but from the safe distance of another country's history.
The movie's official reception in Poland has angered Wajda and his staff here. "It is a pity that the Polish side, as coproducer of this film and a beneficiary of the profits from its distribution, has not taken a more comprehensive view," said Barbara Pec-Slesicka, managing director of Wajda's production group "Zespol X."
As part of their continuing crackdown against prominent dissenters, Communist authorities are trying to force Wajda from the presidency of the filmmakers' association before allowing the group to resume functioning. The association was suspended when martial law was declared more than 14 months ago.
At the same time, Sajda was allowed to travel to West Germany recently to begin work on his next project -- a film starring Hanna Schygulla that Wajda says will be about love, not revolution. CAPTION: Picture, Wajda, with cinematographer Igor Luther; Copyright (c) 1983, Triumph Films