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A Man Escaped: A Metaphor for Hope and Freedom

The 1956 French film A Man Escaped is a taut, tense drama of a resistance fighter imprisoned in Lyons by the occupying German forces during World War II. Based upon historical events, with minimal dialogue and an effective but sparse soundtrack, the film focuses on one man’s seemingly hopeless single-minded determination to escape.

In this sense, A Man Escaped is an outstanding suspense movie of the prison escape genre.  However, Robert Brisson, whose efforts won for him the Cannes award for Best Director, offers us much more than a great nail biter. In his hands the story becomes a metaphor for hope and freedom.

Fontaine, the prisoner, even at the very beginning of the film attempts to escape while being conducted to prison.  Although he is beaten, he immediately sets about planning how to escape from his prison cell, out of the building in which he is in solitary confinement, and ultimately over the prison walls to freedom.  With incredible patience and meticulous attention to detail, Fontaine formulates his plan and creates the tools that he needs to escape.  At first, other prisoners think his efforts are not only foolish but also threaten their existence.  His persistence and courage win them over, and they begin to help him.

A Man Escaped invites reflection on the centrality of hope and freedom both on the individual and corporate levels.  The prisoners are a community formed by coercion and under the constant threat of execution by their captors.  At the beginning of the film we are told that over 7,000 died in this prison.  Yet despite their shared fatal reality, they are afraid to risk their illusion of security for the chance of freedom.  Even Fontaine hesitates at the crucial point when all his preparations have been completed.  He sees that the challenge is to decide to take the final risk for freedom or to surrender to hopelessness.  With the pronouncement that he will be executed, Fontaine realizes the inescapability of death and decides to risk escaping.

The film effectively demonstrates the danger that the human fear of death leads to a self-destructive clinging to a false security.   Thus, the desire for security is a threat to freedom, which can only be overcome by the willingness to hope and risk one’s false security and life for the chance of freedom and true life.  This very existential viewpoint raises the question of how one can hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.  Brisson’s answer involves strongly religious overtones.

An imprisoned Protestant pastor plays an important role in the film.  On the one hand, he warns Fontaine that he can wait no longer.  Time is running out.  He must decide.  On the other hand, and more crucially, he speaks of a new life and hands Fontaine a slip of paper on to which he has copied a portion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. In response to Nicodemus’s questioning how a grown man can be born again, Jesus answers, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (v. 8). The quotation from John is not just something thoughtlessly thrown in.  A complete translation of the French title is A Man Condemned to Death Escapes or The Wind Blows Where It Wills.  Fontaine reads the passage while Orsini, one of his fellow prisoners, is being executed but who also had hope for a new life.

At the very least, Fontaine and the other prisoners represent everyman.  All live under a sentence of death.  This being the case, Brisson calls us to decide to risk all and to hope and have courage in the face of man’s common fate.  Such a stance results in an authentic existence, a truly free life.

I cannot state definitively that Brisson goes beyond the existentialist courage to be free to a specifically religious, even Christian, answer.  Nor, can it be said that he denies it.  In any case, the Christian hope in the face of death can be briefly stated as follows.  Christ died and conquered death for us in the resurrection. As the innocent Son of God, “it was not possible for him to be held by death” (Acts 2:24).  Jesus thus delivers “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15). Those who trust in Christ no longer need to fear death because Jesus, who “is the resurrection and the life,” promises “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:35-36).

When I rented A Man Escaped, which is available as a Criterion Edition DVD from Netflix, I thought that I was just getting a suspense movie.  I got that and much more.  I highly recommend it to you.




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