Polish director Andrej Wajda's film Danton is a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one. The film focuses on a few weeks in Paris in 1794. The city is at the centre of one of the greatest revolutions yet seen, that which swept France in the years after 1789 and which marked the triumph of modern bourgeois society.
By 1794 the revolution had radicalised under the threat of counter-revolution from the old feudal order and foreign invasion. At the centre of the storm stands the Committee of Public Safety, elected by the National Convention and charged with defending the revolution.
The Committee is headed by Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine St Just and other leaders of the revolutionary Jacobin society. They face growing opposition from both the left and the right. On the left the followers of Hébert want to carry economic controls further. On the right are followers of Georges Danton, who had inspired the mass popular resistance which saved the revolution in 1792 in the wake of the final overthow of the monarchy.
Danton is backed by Camille Desmoulins, a revolutionary journalist who was a hero for his role in the 1789 storming of the Bastille. But by now Danton and Desmoulins wanted to wind down the controlled economy and sue for peace. Wajda manages to capture the atmosphere of the time. A real smell of the beleagured revolution battling for its life comes through.
The film opens with Danton, (Gerard Depardieu) returning to Paris from his rural property. He is a wealthy bourgeois. Yet in the cold, dark and wet streets the poor stand, hungry for bread. Revolutionary guards check anyone entering or leaving the city, rumours fly around, the whiff of a revolution fighting for its life hangs in the air.
In the National Convention, scenes follow of passionate debates, a smell of panic at the threat of counter-revolution hangs over everything.
A parade of shifty opportunist characters gather around Danton. He - thanks to his revolutionary reputation - can be their figurehead for winding down the revolution so they can enjoy their new found wealth. But inside the assembly we come back time and again to the sight from the podium of the inflexible stare of St Just, the most determined of those who want to carry the revolution to complete victory.
The film captures the tension as it becomes clear a sharp and probably bloody clash between the two camps is looming.
Robespierre wants victory but also wants unity rather than turning on his former allies. In the end he acts decisively. This all leads to the central scene in the film, the trial and execution of Danton.
Gerard Depardieu here gives perhaps his best ever performance. Apparently he didn't sleep for days to create the manic feeling of tension, exhaustion and desperation of a man on trial for his life.
The film closes after Danton's dramatic death with the foreboding of Robespierre, who senses that in winning the battle he may have saved the revolution but has also dug his own grave.
It was a premonition borne out a few months later when, with the revolution successfully defended, the majority of the bourgeoisie overthrew Robespierre, St Just and their followers and sent them to the guillotine.
For a glimpse into these epic events Wajda's film is unsurpassed. But, like all history, it is not simply about the past.
Wajda's earlier films included the magnificent Man of Marble and Man of Iron. These are marvellous portraits of the brutal reality of Stalinism in Poland and then the eruption of the Solidarity mass workers' movement in 1980.
Wajda made Danton a year or so after General Jaruzelksi's coup which crushed Solidarity in 1981. So Danton is also a cipher for Wajda's views on Polish society of 1980-81. This perspective leads the film to be lopsided at times as Depardieu's powerful and sympathetic Danton is partnered by a cold and unsympathetic portrayal of Robespierre and St Just. They represent austerity, virtue, the defence of the state - for which read General Jaruzelski. Meanwhile Danton represents real life, the people - warts and all.
In the end Robespierre/ Jaruzelski wins but it is a pyrrhic victory. He and what he stands for cannot truly win at the price of crushing what Danton represents.