Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné À Mort S'est Échappé Ou Le Vent Souffle Où Il Veut – "A Condemned Man Escaped or the Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth”, 1956) tells the story of French World War II prisoner of war André Devigny's incarceration by the Nazis during their occupation of France. At the beginning of the film, Bresson states that it is a true story (he, himself, had also been a Nazi prisoner of war) and is presented without adornment. By all accounts this appears to be the case. Yet it is to my mind Bresson’s finest film and ranks as one of the great artistic achievements in cinema. With this work, alone, Bresson assured himself a place in the Pantheon.
The lengthy French title is worth bearing in mind while watching the movie, because the story depicts a man who is determined to do something about his seemingly hopeless circumstances, and at the same time is dependent on the mysterious currents of unpredictable events. The “wind bloweth where it listeth” (pleases), as Jesus said to Nicodemus, and we must find a way to live under those conditions. Throughout the film we watch a man engaged in the struggle to exert his will and realise his slim possibilities for life. He is always at the mercy of the fates, and yet he is not a fatalist: he struggles on. During his imprisonment, the prisoner, Fontaine, is once asked by a fellow inmate who happens to be a priest whether he prays. Fontaine answers that he does, sometimes, and the priest admonishes him, suggesting that God didn’t arrange the world to make it so easy for the sometimes prayerful. Fontaine responds that in fact the much-too-trivial arrangement of the world would be simply to let God handle everything and to be passively resigned to one's fate and pray. For Fontaine, the only truly authentic path is not prayerful resignation, but to struggle mightily against oppression. One must act.
The opening shot of the film shows a close-up of Fontaine’s hands, and then the camera pulls back to show the prisoner riding in the back of a car with another prisoner and looking for a chance to jump. He finally makes his move, but the camera remains fixed on his now-empty seat. In a minute we see that he has been recaptured by the Nazi police. He is taken to the prison, where he is severely beaten by guards, again off-camera, and then deposited in a heap into his tiny cell. As Fontaine comes to, we finally here his voice-over for the first time. He describes how, now handcuffed, he discovered that he could talk through his cell window to some fellow prisoners in the courtyard and could communicate with his unseen cell neighbour by tapping out the letters of the alphabet on the wall in order to compose messages. Eventually, he learns how to pass small parcels through his cell window to his courtyard comrades and obtains from them a pin, by means of which he manages to unshackle his handcuffs. All this is important, because he knows that executions are being carried out inside the prison, and he may be summoned for execution at any time. Soon, however, he is transferred from his first-floor cell to another cell on the top floor. This time he is no longer shackled, so his work learning how to undo the handcuffs amounted to nothing. And furthermore, now he has no friendly neighbour with whom to communicate by tapping, and he is not able to pass secret parcels in and out through his upper-level window. His only interactions with others now take place when the prisoners on his floor file out to empty their slop buckets and then wash up in the lavatory.
Still determined to find a way out, he stares at his oaken cell door for long periods and finally decides that it may be possible to dismantle some of the slots by painstaking effort. He fashions a small chisel out of his spoon and begins working away at the door. After weeks of work and the amazing good luck of finding a needed second spoon, he is able to remove the door panels so that he can exit his cell when the guards are not around. Soon he is roaming the corridors of the prison at night in order to learn more about the layout and figure out an escape plan.
Eventually, Fontaine discovers a skylight through which he could escape and passes the crucial information to another prisoner, Orsini, who wishes to flea with him. Now Fontaine and Orsini set to work trying to fashion the ropes they will need by cutting up any scraps of clothing and bedding that they can find. There are detailed scenes of Fontaine’s hands engaged in the painstaking work to make the long, wire-reinforced cloth rope that he will need. Meanwhile, Orsini, growing antsy, decides to take off on his own in broad daylight and manages to make it up to the prison rooftop. He is eventually caught by the prison guards, though, and he is returned to his cell, awaiting a next-day firing squad. Though he failed, Orsini manages to pass on to Fontaine, just before he is executed, some crucial information about how to make the strong grappling hooks that he will need in order to make it beyond the prison rooftop. Once again, fate has intervened and supplied Fontaine with a crucial piece of the puzzle. Fontaine sets about working to make the grappling hooks, and again we see detailed shots of his hands engaged in the laborious work.
When Fontaine has his equipment ready, he knows that there’s no time to lose. But he feels he needs a partner in order manage the ropes during the escape, and Orsini is dead. But just then he is taken out for an interrogation and told that he will be executed in a day or two. When he is returned to his cell, he discovers that he has now been assigned a cell-mate – Jost, a 16-year-old French boy who had joined the German army, but who had gotten himself into trouble somehow. Here is a potential partner, but can this turncoat be trusted? Fontaine must decide whether to let Jost in on his plan or try to kill him. These are the only alternatives.
Fontaine and Jost, now alone in their cell, engage in a long conversation, the longest in the film, as Fontaine searchingly tries to learn about Jost’s character. Agonisingly uncertain, Fontaine decides to risk taking Jost with him, and they set out the next night through the skylight. The final fifteen minutes of the film cover their breathtaking passage. One critical hurdle: Fontaine must kill one of the armed guards outside the inner prison wall, with his bare hands and without making much noise. The tense build-up to this moment shows Fontaine waiting until a passing train makes enough noise to drown out his actions. The actual murder is not shown – again we must use our imagination for that violent act.
None of the violent events in the film are shown on-camera. The jump from the car in the early scenes, the beating of Fontaine, the beating of Orsini, the executions, the killing of the guard during the final escape – all of these events are shown off-camera. What we do see is enough for us to feel the inner turmoil of the characters, who must maintain emotionless countenances in order not to provoke the prison guards. The soundtrack is spare, but it features Bresson’s characteristic insertion of specific, crisp, and distinctive off-screen sounds that intensify our concentration. At various moments the soundtrack features music from Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor, (K. 427), and this is particularly effective in conveying the solemn life-and-death struggle that we are witnessing.
How much of this story can be seen as a metaphor for human existence? We all identify ourselves with Fontaine, though the events described are far from our own personal experiences. Certainly the music, the riveting performance by François Leterrier, as Fontaine, and the careful focus of the individual shots and sounds all contribute to the experience. This is a film whose narrative buildup was unmatched in Bresson’s other efforts. The final moments of liberation at the close are among the more exhilarating aesthetic experiences in screen history.