Movie 88: A Man Escaped

Manly Footwear: I am not surprised I’d never seen this film, or even heard of it except in the most tangential way, but I am a little chagrined, because it is not only stylistically remarkable, it is morally edifying to watch, not something I can say about many of the movies on the list of 100. Viewing any great movie—any kind of art, really–is a kind or moral edification inasmuch as it pierces the veil that separates human from human, and makes us aware of what kinds of greatness our species might aspire to. A Man Escaped does all that, but it does so in service of an even greater morality, that which calls people to resist oppression.

The story of a French resistance fighter sentenced to death by the Nazis in 1943, A Man Escaped is a portrait of a man who refuses to give in to despair, choosing instead to gnaw at the bonds holding him until he can find a way to cast them aside and, well, escape. In the hands of another director, this tale might be an action flick, or a melodrama, or a bit of feel good schmaltz like the Shawshank Redemption. And truly, many of the escape movie genre tropes are present in A Man Escaped, but every scene, every action, every scrap of dialogue, is shot with a quiet, understated, but completely controlled style that refuses to be entertaining. It is affecting, profound, scary, even funny at times, but Bresson actively resists the sort of crowd-pleasing signals that we normally associate with Hollywood, but which are of central concern to directors everywhere, and for good reason: to please the crowd is to make money. To see a film that refuses to play to our expectations in this way, and for this moral purpose, is somewhat shocking, especially since Bresson manages to captivate the viewer, but without all the tinsel.

Consider: Nazis, in just about every non-documentary film I can think of, are caricatures of evil, and like Milton’s Satan, their evil is portrayed as something shiny, captivating, even seductive. I’m sure there are a slew of examples I am forgetting, but the point is, most people really want to believe in evil, probably so they can believe in goodness, and so evil needs to be something compelling, or else it is not believable, which in turn makes people question goodness. In A Man Escaped, the Nazis are barely given screen time, and when they are, often we just see their hands, or a profile, or their backs walking away, or their sticks raised to beat someone. They are not compelling, they barely exist at all, which is exactly what they deserve, and yet the movie is perfectly hypnotic without conspicuous evil-doing, or conspicuous heroism, for that matter: they are all just people, some of them doing horrible things, some of them trying to avoid having horrible things being done to them, and some just surrendering to death-in-life.

I have no idea if Bresson and Austrian psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl ever crossed paths—they were of similar ages, both had suffered in camps at the hands of the Nazis, and both were very well-known, but I have no good reason to think they met. But if they did, I suspect they would either have a lot to talk about, or would just sip coffee in companionable silence.

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity -even under the most difficult circumstances- to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
–Viktor Frankl

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”
― Robert Bresson

Comfortina Footwear: What a film. It takes place in a Nazi prison camp in Lyon, France called Montluc in 1943. Based on a true story and filmed in the actual prison (it still operated as a woman’s prison until 2007!) it is the best escape film I’ve ever seen.

Fontaine, the main character, is based on Andre Devigny, who did escape from the same prison, and is a member of the French resistance. He’s already been captured in the first scene and is trying to escape from the car taking him to meet his fate. Even handcuffs didn’t stop him from fleeing.
Once he’s caught, beaten, and returned to the car, you learn he’s in the clutches of the Nazi’s and you understand the desire to flee regardless of the speed of the car and the handcuffs.

This film didn’t use any famous actors, fancy editing, or expansive camera shots. Every shot was close and contained, which helped to set the mood of the prison and added to the feeling of confinement. 

Fontaine is the character viewers get to see and study while all of the others are secondary and cursory, lending to the feeling that the viewer, too, is in largely solitary confinement save for a few chances each day to see and hastily speak to the others imprisoned around them. We get to see him and his surroundings and feel the steady movement towards an escape plan as we realize the only way out otherwise is by firing squad.

For a film that is largely limited to 4 sets – the cell, the yard (only the view from the cell window), the stairways, and the lavatory, it’s rich and full and nerve racking. I was on the edge of my seat and wringing my hands repeatedly as I watched.

The focus of this film was on duty and hope. It made sure not to show the faces of the Nazis. We hear them, and see them in profile or from behind but never full on and none had names or spoke directly to Fontaine (except when telling him his case had been reviewed, he was found guilty, and would be put to death). The other prisoners were also in the background except as purveyors of information, advice, and a vessel for hope to grow.
I won’t tell what happened as viewers need to see it for themselves but it’s a beautiful, compelling, nail-biter of a film that deserves to be seen.