In 1940, a 24-year-old former school teacher named Andre Devigny, after having served in the French army as a light tank officer, joined the resistance in Lyon under the code name Valentin. For the next two years, he worked with British Special Operations Executive. He conducted sabotage against German military installations, and helped refugees escape to Switzerland. In 1943, he was betrayed to the Gestapo. The Montluc Prison, where he was tortured by Klaus Barbie himself, was not only considered escape-proof. It was certain death. Almost all of the 10,000 Frenchman warehoused at the infamous fortress in Lyon awaiting execution were either shot or sent to death camps in Eastern Europe. Andre Devigny escaped, rejoined the resistance, and went onto a long and distinguished career in the French military.
Robert Bresson was no stranger to Nazi prisons, having spent a year in a prisoner of war camp after the surrender of France in 1940. In the mid-1950s, he and Andre Devigny began to collaborate on a film version of Devigny’s memoir. The result was A Man Escaped, not only considered one of Bresson’s best films, but perhaps the greatest film ever made about the French Resistance. More importantly, it’s the distillation of Bresson’s method down to its essence. The use of non-actors, the austere, restrained emotion, the exclusive reliance on a 50mm lens, the religious and moral themes, if you had to watch only one film by Robert Bresson, this would probably be it.
A Man Escaped begins with Fontaine, a very thinly fictionalized version of Devigny, being transported to Montluc. Since the Gestapo haven’t gotten around to handcuffing him, he waits for his chance to escape, watching the road with an obsessive attention to detail that would later become so important to his survival. After his first attempt fails — there’s another car following the one transporting the prisoners — he’s taken to a Montluc torture chamber, beaten, then assigned to a room on the first floor. Devigny was the kind of a valuable asset who would be extensively interrogated before being shot. But Fontaine, his fictionalized counterpart, is still a little confused about why they didn’t execute him right away. He’s bloody, but not permanently damaged. He’s also a resourceful man who immediately begins to think about how he can get word to the outside that he’s been captured. He climbs up on a ledge and looks out the window. Below, he sees three Frenchman walking slowly and deliberately back and forth across a courtyard. One of them agrees to get him a pencil and paper, as well as a safety pin he can use to pick his handcuffs. He’ll smuggle a letter out to Fontaine’s mother.
Anybody who’s seen Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows knows exactly what kind of risk Fontaine is taking by giving the name of his mother to a stranger. It means his whole family could be taken out and shot, or transported to a death camp in Eastern Europe. The Gestapo did, in fact, take revenge on Andre Devigny after his escape by executing two of his cousins. But Terry, the man walking in the courtyard is trustworthy. Fontaine gets word to his mother that the radio that formerly belonged to the resistance has now fallen into the hands of the Gestapo, and, quite possibly, saves lives. The ability to size up a stranger, the willingness to take risks, an attention to detail, skill in improvisation are qualities common to good military leaders. Terry and Fontaine have immediately recognized each other as fellow soldiers in the resistance — What place more honorable in occupied France than a Gestapo prison? — against the German occupation.
Bresson explores the themes of solidarity and resistance in more detail after Fontaine is transferred to a room on the third floor of the prison. He knocks on the wall, but gets no response. Earlier, he had been able to make contact with his neighbor on the first floor by tapping out Morse code. He assumes the cell is unoccupied. We will eventually learn that Blanchet, the man in the next cell, had been contemplating suicide, and that Fontaine’s tapping had saved his life. We will also learn that Blanchet, and his despair, are, quite possibly, an impediment to Fontaine’s escape. To raise Blanchet’s spirits is not only an act of solidarity, but an act of self-preservation. Libertarians wouldn’t last long in the French Resistance. Montluc is a torture chamber run by the Gestapo, not a prisoner of war camp run by the German military — who quite possibly would have seen a French army officer as someone deserving of some respect — and no contact between prisoners is permitted. But there’s one exception. The prisoners, who shit and piss in a bucket in their cells, are required, once a day, to dump their waste in the courtyard. Fontaine establishes a relationship with Orsini, another prisoner who will also try to escape, and “The Pastor,” an evangelical Christian who wants a Bible, but has to make do with a pencil Fontaine gives him.
“Write and stay sane,” Fontaine says.
“God will provide,” the pastor tells him.
“God will provide,” Fontaine says, “but only for those who help him.”
Back in his cell, Fontaine’s obsessive attention to detail shows him the way out. Staring at the door, he realizes the joints between the boards are made of flimsy wood that can be whittled away by an iron spoon that he fashions into a crude chisel. The doomed escape attempt by Orsini puts the next piece of the puzzle in place. Orsini, on the way to his execution, tells Fontaine what kind of tools he’ll need to escape, rope, which he makes out of bedsheets, and grappling hooks, which he fashions out of the metal from a duct in his cell.
If I have one criticism of A Man Escaped, an almost perfect film, it’s this. Fontaine has too much time to himself. Where are the interrogations? Where is the systematic dehumanization? Bresson imagines Montluc almost as much as a monastery as a Nazi prison. Fontaine’s work on his cell door, his meticulous construction of a rope and grappling hooks, his meetings with his fellow detainees in the courtyard become a sort of monastic routine, the preparations for his escape a form of prayer. If you want to see what real Nazis look like and what happens to real prisoners detained by secret police, follow up A Man Escaped with A Dry White Season, Euzhan Palcy’s 1989 film about apartheid South Africa. But that’s a different film and Bresson is exploring a different theme, not the oppression of a colonized people by a “master race,” but freedom, despair, and the resurrection of a dead man through self-discipline and solidarity.
A Man Escaped is also a sustained meditation on the artistic process itself, on disciplined self-expression. Bresson’s creation is his film, his tools a camera, actors, a screenplay, a location, light, and shadow. Fontaine’s creation is his path to freedom, and life. After Fontaine is given a cell mate, a 16-year-old boy named François Jost who had enlisted in the German Army, his fellow detainees suspect a plot. Is Jost a spy? They begin to rush their comrade. “If you’re going to do it,” the pastor tells him, “do it now.” But Fontaine knows from Orsini’s doomed attempt to escape that going through with a plan before that plan is finished can mean being tripped up by some unforeseen detail as surely as waiting too long can lead to being discovered. Like a good novelist, painter, or composer, Fontaine must strike a balance between doing it half-assed, and getting consumed by a work you never complete. Jost, who Fontaine must either bring along or kill, complicates matters. Even after he decides he can trust Jost, Fontaine still has to deal with a careless, impulsive, ignorant 16-year-old boy. Jost is not Terry from the courtyard, a fellow veteran of the resistance with whom he can communicate with by a nod or a few words. Fontaine not only has to create his path to freedom, he has to explain it. He becomes critic as well as artist, missionary as well as monastic.
Jost is a happy addition, not only for Fontaine’s escape — they both discover that scaling one of the prison walls can’t be done without two men — but for Bresson’s film. Some of the strongest scenes of A Man Escaped take place between the teenage, would-be collaborator and the French patriot. Fontaine’s insistence to Jost that the Germans will lose the war is curt, direct, matter of fact, and with an air of menace. He knows that Nazism will eventually go down, and warns Jost not to be caught on the wrong side of the liberation. The young man, who might have wavered before getting to Montluc, now has the strong father figure he needs, and he proves to be a worthy companion. After killing a Nazi guard, they make it over the three walls, and down to the street. The very last scene of A Man Escaped has Jost and Fontaine walking off to freedom, and to rejoin the resistance. We hear the Kyrie from Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. Fontaine has been brought back to life by his own will as surely as Lazarus had been brought back to life by the divine will of Jesus. Robert Bresson, in turn, has exorcized the demons that were undoubtedly still with him after his time in a German POW camp. An extended meditation on process, on the tedious details of Devigny’s escape, has let him put himself in the shoes of his hero, the only man ever to have escaped from the escape-proof Gestapo dungeon at Montluc.