by Niky Charouzová
Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is set in a prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany and through the revealing nature of the title itself, depicts the themes of liberty and confinement. The film follows the imprisonment of Fontaine, a French soldier during World War II, who throughout the film devises an escape plan from the prison and uses the materials from his room to aid him. He ends up having to escape with his cellmate, François Jost, with whom he ends up walking away into the night after they have succeeded. The black and white film is unlike many others mostly due to its lack of special effects or emotion of its characters, which helps draw significant attention to perhaps the key component of the film: sound, or rather, silence. Additionally, the fact that the film is devoid of these special effects forces the audience to focus on the actual events of the storyline without any distractions. Many times throughout the film, however, sound is even more important to the story than the image itself, and if the image is restrictive, sound often guides us and replaces it to some extent.
The first scene of the film shown below is of Fontaine getting driven with another prisoner in the back of a car and his subsequent failed escape attempt:
This scene, along with the very final scene, are the only two parts of the film that are shot outside the prison. Very few connections are made between the life inside the prison and that outside of it, because the main point of the film is to follow the actions of Fontaine inside the prison, rather than looking at the bigger picture. The first scene immediately depicts the enigmatic nature of the film, because we are left without context until later; when Fontaine attempts to escape from the vehicle, the camera is left focussing on the car seat, rather than following Fontaine. The sounds outside the car in are the only hints the audience gets at what is happening. As the audience, we are only ever aware of the things that Fontaine experiences and witnesses; we often see even less than that, as is the case with the scene above or even minor details, such as the presence of the lamp in Fontaine’s room, which we are unaware of until much later in the film. The cluelessness of the audience is rather ironic, because we are told about how the film ends, yet are still left to hypnotically follow every detail. This also relates to Fontaine in his limited view of the world around him, as he is left clueless regarding his fate apart from knowing that he will be taken for execution someday.
This ties in to the understandable emotionlessness of Fontaine and the other prisoners, who, through confinement, share a common suffering albeit being complete strangers. They rarely convey any emotion, as is especially evident with Fontaine whose life we follow the most, and most of them aid each other and attempt to communicate as much as they can. (The only prisoner who seems to go against this is the old man next door to Fontaine, who, due to effectively being interrupted in his suicide attempt, does not reply to Fontaine’s knock on the wall. It seems that the old man, more so than the others, has accepted his fate in the prison and suffers internally, rather than engaging in some sort of comradery. He does, however, contribute a blanket to Fontaine’s rope later in the film.) It is, therefore, slightly alarming when Fontaine does, indeed, break down in nervous laughter after being told about the decision made regarding his execution.
The scene above seems almost unnatural due to the severe lack of emotion in the rest of the film. Interestingly, during the creation of his films, Bresson often forces the scenes to be retaken numerous times in order to drain any remaining energy and emotion out of the actors’ faces. In doing so, specifically with Fontaine, emotion ends up seeming slightly unnatural, because all we see otherwise are blank faces. No matter the situation, Fontaine rarely reveals signs of his feelings. It is also then an unsettling force when François Jost is thrown into the picture, making us wary of him and leaving us to question his trustworthiness.
Most important in this film, however, is Bresson’s use of sound; any actual sound is often so limited that it truly brings out the importance of silence and it also forces the audience’s attention to be brought to the image. Much of the film revolves around wordless action; namely, Fontaine spends most of his time working with the objects in his cell, such as breaking the door frame with his spoon or tying together the materials to use as a rope. Though there is sometimes an overlapping commentary, mostly we are left to focus on the detail of Fontaine’s mundane actions. This intensifies every little auditory element, which again makes almost everything around him seem to be a threat.
Sound has myriad different interpretations and purposes in the film; on the one hand, sound acts as a warning signal for Fontaine. Fontaine watches out for many different sounds in the movie that alert him to possible danger, such as the guards’ clanging of the railing when they walk up the stairs, or his friend’s cough from across the hall signalling that he is watching out for him. On the other hand, sound is a key factor that could actually get Fontaine killed in many cases; any sound that Fontaine makes that is loud and slightly out of the ordinary could potentially kill him. During his escape, Fontaine uses other, often outside, noises to his advantage in covering up the sounds that he makes; for example, the noise of the train covers up the sounds of his and François’ footsteps, or he uses his own coughs to cover up the noise of his scraping. One of the most vital moments in Fontaine and Jost’s escape is the howling of the train that enables Fontaine to kill the guard without making any noise.
Moreover, sound acts as its own representation of reality in that it emphasises the harshness of Fontaine’s situation and the thus-far never-ending imprisonment of all the prisoners in the camp. The harsh, loud noises of the door being bolted, or the bowl clattering on the floor when essentially being thrown onto Fontaine’s prison cell floor are all grim reminders of life in prison in contrast with life outside. Precisely for this reason, most of the sounds made by the guards or that simply reside inside the prison are heightened in volume and are thus unpleasant and cacophonous. This is also evident in the speech of the German soldiers, whose voices are loud and echoing compared to the silent, repressed voices of the French prisoners. Bresson’s manipulation of the volume of certain sounds as opposed to others reinforce the reality of imprisonment.
On the other hand, sound is also used to portray liberty and ordinary life, even though we rarely ever see outside the prison. In these scenes, sound replaces image, because the exteriors of the prison are seldom shown, so in most of the scenes sound guides our understanding of the events. Again, the very first scene is one of the two times that the action is set outside of the prison. Fontaine is in the back of the car, which drives through a busy street and people going about their daily lives can be seen through the windows. The film shows some outside action, such as people walking by and a horse carriage driving by, but it emphasises the sound of the approaching train before the train is even shown on camera. These outside noises, especially given Fontaine’s actions in reaching for the door handle in the car, depict Fontaine’s goal of escape, which he maintains throughout the film. When Fontaine is placed in his first cell, he interacts with one of three men on the outside of the prison, who brings him a pen and delivers his letters. The man gives Fontaine some hope and Fontaine’s actions indicate that his revolutionary fervour has not been lost, even after his failed escape in the car. A few times throughout the film we hear noises symbolising freedom in that they are noises of ordinary outside life. These sounds, in the form of the train passing by and whistling or cars driving by, continuously remind Fontaine of the fact that the prison is a completely different world from daily life and that he must escape to reach that point in life once again. Furthermore, we never see the absolute conclusion of the film in terms of Fontaine getting home to his family again. This indicates the distance of the real world to the events of the film and again enforces the fact that things outside the prison are irrelevant to the plot.
Additionally, there are many scenes in which sound is interestingly manipulated in that during speech between prisoners often everything around is quiet; however, when nobody is talking or during Fontaine’s commentaries over the film, there are many other noises in the background to fill the gaps and keep the suspense up before the camera reveals the bigger picture. The frequent delays between the camera movement and the sound that comes before it makes scenes more suspenseful. This is also the case with scenes where the camera does not even pan to show what is occurring, such as during Fontaine and Jost’s escape, when Fontaine listens to the sounds of footsteps while waiting for the right moment to kill the guard on duty. The sounds of the footsteps of the guard and the absence of visuals to aid this creates great suspense, because we anticipate that Fontaine will attack the guard at the right moment, but we do not know when that should or will occur. The absence of image is further important, because it creates a sense of discomfort when, for example, the thuds of Orsini being beating up are heard distinctly in the otherwise quiet prison. Feelings of fear and suspense regarding Fontaine’s own fate arise when Orsini is executed, because neither Fontaine nor the audience see it happen, but we hear the gunshots very clearly. In this case, sound builds up tension, because it is after Orsini’s failed escape, which makes Fontaine question his own escape.
Sound is evidently a key component in this film that both aids the understanding of the series of events, but also has many other purposes, such as building up tension or serving as a warning tool to Fontaine. Because A Man Escaped is devoid of special effects, colour, or emotion, most of the attention while watching the film is directed specifically to the different sound effects and its uses. Sound keeps the audience involved and nervous, even though the title of the film reveals its happy ending, which is one of its many admirable effects in the film that manipulates the audience’s experience in viewing it.
A Man Escaped. Gaumont Film Company, 1957.