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Polish Director Bravely Examined Power, and Abuses of Power

  • In Polish filmmaker Ardrzej Wajda's 1983 film, Gerard Depardieu plays French Revolution leader Georges Danton.<br/>(Courtesy photograph)

    In Polish filmmaker Ardrzej Wajda's 1983 film, Gerard Depardieu plays French Revolution leader Georges Danton.
    (Courtesy photograph)

  • Poland's Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrzej Wajda.<br/>(AP - Czarek Sokolowski)

    Poland's Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrzej Wajda.
    (AP - Czarek Sokolowski)

  • Poland's Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, left, gestures after receiving the nation's highest distinction, the Order of the White Eagle from President Bronislaw Komorowski, not seen, at the presidential palace in Warsaw, Poland on Monday, March 21, 2011. Wajda, 85, received the order for having shaped Poland's culture and the generation of the Solidarity freedom movement in the 1980s. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

    Poland's Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, left, gestures after receiving the nation's highest distinction, the Order of the White Eagle from President Bronislaw Komorowski, not seen, at the presidential palace in Warsaw, Poland on Monday, March 21, 2011. Wajda, 85, received the order for having shaped Poland's culture and the generation of the Solidarity freedom movement in the 1980s. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

  • In Polish filmmaker Ardrzej Wajda's 1983 film, Gerard Depardieu plays French Revolution leader Georges Danton.<br/>(Courtesy photograph)
  • Poland's Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrzej Wajda.<br/>(AP - Czarek Sokolowski)
  • Poland's Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, left, gestures after receiving the nation's highest distinction, the Order of the White Eagle from President Bronislaw Komorowski, not seen, at the presidential palace in Warsaw, Poland on Monday, March 21, 2011. Wajda, 85, received the order for having shaped Poland's culture and the generation of the Solidarity freedom movement in the 1980s. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Nothing concentrates the mind quite so acutely as seeing the instrument by which, eventually, you will be put to death. At the beginning of the 1983 film Danton, directed by the great Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, Georges Danton, one of the leaders of the French Revolution along with his peer and rival, the feared Maximilien Robespierre, is riding in a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Paris.

As the carriage passes through a public square, Danton, played by Gerard Depardieu, peers through the window at a looming guillotine. Shrouded in black cloth, Madame Guillotine is, for the moment, not in use, its blade stilled. But Danton knows that it won’t be out of commission for long, and that politics, particularly in a dictatorship, have a way of rapidly overturning assumptions about who holds the reins of power, and who is in favor.

There are a number of American movies that deal with the long, hard slog of campaigning and being elected to office, but they usually stop at the door to the office itself. Relatively few American feature films, though, take up the larger question of what it means to hold political power, and the potential for its abuse.

Perhaps that’s because Americans, for all their quarrelsomeness, are still relatively idealistic about their democratic system of government; or perhaps because Americans have never lived under a real dictatorship; or maybe because philosophical discussions about how power is exercised make us impatient.

Whatever the reason, you have to look to other countries for films that cast a cool, appraising eye on how people seize and wield power, and Danton is one of the best films I’ve seen examine how absolute power corrupts.

The film is set during a brief period in 1794, when the Committee for Public Safety, of which Danton was a founding member, dispatched political opponents as fast as it could draw up lists of their names. Once Danton was one of the great heroes of the Revolution, but now he is thought to be too soft, too moderate in his call to end the Terror, which historians would later estimate to have claimed as many as 40,000 lives. So, like other men who have run afoul of the Committee, Danton must be purged, and almost any excuse will do.

Danton, as played by the imposing Depardieu, is impulsive, sensual, grandiloquent, given to the large gesture and the call to arms. Robespierre, played with icy resolve in a quietly dominant performance by Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak, is contained, controlling and merciless. Whatever feelings of regret he has are quickly tamped down. Lacking empathy and imagination, he can’t see that when a revolution begins eating its young, it’s just as likely that he will end as one of its victims.

Like many artists in totalitarian states, Wajda learned to comment obliquely on the brutal excesses of the regime while working within its system. So, during the early 1980s, when the Polish labor union Solidarity was challenging the Communist government, Wajda went to Paris to make a film that was ostensibly about the French Revolution.

The characters may be French, the costumes 18th century and the weapon of terror the guillotine, rather than a bullet to the back of the head, but the subtext is Poland under the Soviets, where all dissent was ruthlessly and efficiently suppressed.

In Danton, he and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who also wrote the scripts for the films The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Return of Martin Guerre, fashioned an elegant intellectual thriller where debates over the rule of law and what kind of society should rise out of the ashes of the monarchy have the same kind of urgency and excitement that most Hollywood films now reserve for the big car chase and the boom-boom explosions.

Now 86, Wajda has spent an illustrious career making movies about Poland under both Nazi and then Soviet rule. In this country, we tend to think of Roman Polanski as the preeminent Polish filmmaker, but Wajda can lay claim to the title with as much authority. He grew up and made his first films in a country that, during the 20th century, has had no illusions about the misuse of power, and he stayed to hold its regime, while it was in power, to account.

His films have a natural gravitas but they’re anything but dry or self-important. It’s as if you’re watching a skilled archer pull the bow back, back, back: there’s the build-up of tension, then the release, the speeding of the arrow through the air, and then the thump as the arrow hits the bull’s eye.

In 2007, Wajda released Katyn, another in his long line of films to look at how the crimes of a totalitarian regime affect a subjugated people. Finally free, after the end of Soviet-dominated rule in Poland in 1989, to make films without having to veil his criticisms, he tackled the mass murder in the spring of 1940 of some 20,000 Polish Army officers and members of the intelligentsia in the forest of Katyn. Wajda’s father was one of the officers who was killed.

The Soviets blamed the massacre on the Nazis, but it was later revealed to have been committed by the Soviets, who wanted to rid themselves of the factions that would have been expected to put up vigorous resistance to a take-over.

Katyn is mournful and elegiac, an ode to a society that was destroyed and the women and men left behind, but it pulls no punches in showing what happens to those who resist. It has the force of outrage, a quality I wish more contemporary American films could muster.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.