A Man Escaped embodies the fear and faith of occupied France

In The World on War, we travel around the globe and investigate how armed conflict influences a country's popular culture and its representation of war in film.

As a member of a generation of Australians who’ve never experienced the horrors of war firsthand, the concept of occupation is nigh unimaginable. To submit to a foreign country, to inhabit a land that once felt like it was yours that is now consumed by fear and intimidation — the idea is terrifying.

Undeniably fascinating, too; countless war films drive their protagonists through occupied France in World War II (even futuristic war films: Edge of Tomorrow, for example, sees troops mount an assault on Normandy to reclaim the country from an invading alien horde). The role of America in both France’s liberation and the mainstream film industry is a contributing factor; the reclamation of France from the Axis is a linchpin of America’s cultural identity.

Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped might be fundamentally about liberation, chronicling in intimate, minimalist detail the prison escape of a captured French Resistance soldier, Fontaine. But this is a French perspective on the occupation that preceded the escape; Fontaine’s ordeals and tenacity within prison walls provide a sombre synecdoche of life in occupied France.

I’m hardly alone in unpacking the allegorical resonances within Bresson’s film. Its sparseness invites such analysis. This is a film with limited dialogue, a film with a narrative built on simple struggles and an outcome spoiled unapologetically by its title. The story of our protagonist, played by François Leterrier, is inspired both by André Devigny’s experiences in and escape from Nazi-operated Montluc prison and Bresson’s own ordeal as a prisoner of war.

We watch from Fontaine’s perspective, we listen to his quiet narration. We share his faith as he spends days carefully dismantling his cell door with an iron spoon, and share his despair when he encounters obstacles. The unadorned, naturalistic simplicity of the film grants A Man Escaped much of its power, but it also demands further scrutiny. There is so little here, and yet it is so moving. What does it mean?

As Jaime M. Christley contends, A Man Escaped is “about what it's about (an imprisoned man escapes), but, at the same time, rises above its earthly architecture, in each moment conveying what's within—and what's outside.” It is a deeply spiritual film, a reflection on Christian faith. It is a conversation about the interaction between audience and filmmaker. It’s also, I’ll contend, an effective encapsulation of life in occupied France, for civilians and prisoners alike (if there’s even a difference. In an occupied country, everyone is a prisoner).

These deeper meanings should not distract from the film’s “earthly architecture.” Before donning one’s film-critic hat and searching for deeper meaning, Bresson’s film is deeply engaging. It finds more tension in Fontaine’s strained attempts to remove his broken spoon from his cell door than can be found in the most action-packed modern movies. That tension exists not because the spoon is a symbol of freedom, or because its jagged metal form represents violent rebellion. It exists because in that moment, we are one with Fontaine, and we will the spoon to slide from between the wedges of wood silently. There is a spoon. Much like Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, much of the importance of A Man Escaped is derived simply through bearing witness to humanity pushed to its extremities.

It’s important to note that Fontaine’s experience — indeed, his very existence — is not defined by suffering or by the absence of freedom. He is beaten, yes, and mistreated, and denied liberty. Bresson, however, avoids displays of physical violence. Shortly after the film begins, Fontaine is left wounded and bloodied as punishment for an attempted escape, but we do not see the assault. We see its effects: his shirt remains bloodstained throughout, a constant visual reminder of the spectre of physical violence. As the plaque that opens the film states, “Here during the German Occupation, 10,000 victims suffered at the hands of the Nazis. 7,000 of them perished.” There is no need for gratuitous violence here; violence — both physical and existential — is omnipresent.

Fontaine doesn’t focus upon the consequences of his incarceration. In a chasm of darkness he looks not at the shadows but at the thin ray of light; the prospect of freedom. His drive to escape renders the film as a kind of prison break procedural. However, his single-mindedness should not be mistaken for solitude; the role of community is emphasised throughout. Fontaine’s escape is only made possible through assistance of his fellow prisoners, through contributions small — delivering letters — and large. Fellow prisoner Orsini (Jacques Ertaud) fatally fails in his own escape attempt “so that [Fontaine] could succeed.”

Every feint towards freedom that Fontain shares with his fellow prisoners is a risk. Every conversation is an exposure, an expression of trust. The real enemies here — the Nazi wardens — aren’t presented as characters, or even humans; the camera keeps their faces out of frame wherever possible, and the ubiquity of their faceless presence lends the film an oppressive, suffocating atmosphere. In this way Bresson captures the disorienting alienation at the heart of occupation, how any sense of community is intrinsically violated and polluted by the fear that the wrong word to the wrong person could bring disaster.

This is best demonstrated by the late introduction of a cellmate for Fontaine, a young man by the name of Jost (Charles Le Clainche). Jost’s appearance complicates Fontaine’s plans; there is no way to complete his escape without his cellmate’s cognizance. He is presented with two options. The first is to trust the young Frenchman and invite him to join the escape. But Jost has a broader faith than Fontaine’s faith in freedom; best demonstrated in this conversation:

Jost: “[The Germans] won’t lose the war.”

Fontaine: “They will, and they’ll leave. They’re bad angels who’ll leave you alone in your own country with no one to defend you. There will be no pity.”

The second option, then, is an option equally lacking in pity: murder. That Fontaine genuinely entertains the second notion, simply because of an apparently friendly conversation between Jost and a guard, emphasises the true terror of occupation. Military occupation succeeds not only through conquering but by dividing. By driving people to director distrust and doubt towards their fellow man.

A Man Escaped is testament to the faith, conviction and bravery necessary to resist in such dire circumstances, and how this resistance is necessary to achieve any kind of victory. Small victories, perhaps, compared to the scale of the war, but important ones nonetheless. This film stands as a testament to rebellion; a memorial, an elegy and a celebration.

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