An amazing film - not just in terms of the incredibly simple setup. Bresson managed to keep everything lean and still the suspense towards the end is amazing. The camera work reflects that simplicity. Mostly closeups, most of them with the lead actor in it, very little dialogue and the voice-over is mostly describing what Fontaine is doing in the frame. Music (Mozart) is used very sparsely.
I think the story is not so simple as it appears, especially after the second viewing. The other stories that sprang into the foreground were:
- Blanchett, his cell neighbor. Fontaine cannot see his first cell neighbor, but he can communicate with him via knocking on the wall. Blanchett is very visible, but he refuses to speak to Fontaine. Only after a very small act of humanity by Fontaine, Blanchett opens up and the two have long talks, with Blanchett "god-fathering" the escape, by giving valuable input and criticism, even motivating Fontaine to leave.
- The priest - during the washing scenes there is a surprising amount of discussion about faith. Considering that this is a film with very little dialogue, I was surprised to realize the second time how most of it revolves of it around faith, hope and biblical messages. I am not quite sure what to make of the second priest, arriving later in the film.
- Jost - In a strange way, Jost, has no identifiable character traits. His back story seems weird and unmotivated. But in the end he turns out to be some kind of guardian angel - although his active role in the escape is minimal. I found it funny that in a way the duo can reach higher when Jost stands on Fontaine's shoulders than the other way around.
Here is a scribbled breakdown, that I did on the second viewing -
Title Sequence (Mozart) – Typo on stone Background
Arrival and the first cell.
Car scene – Fontaine tries to escape, but gets arrested again immediately. He is handcuffed
NOTE: The first shot shows Fontaines hands (they are his main tool for escaping) – and there are many hands visible during the movie, usually involved in small activities.
NOTE: Only rarely the faces of the occupying germans are shown.
Arrival at the prison. Fontaine is beaten for his attempt to escape. He is put into a special cell.
Beaten up again and brought back to his cell. Handcuffed again. Here the voice-over starts. He lies down to sleep. The neighbor knocks.
He is examined and put back in the cell (not sure why) – he starts to examine the cell. The cells are all the same. He climbs to the window and sees the courtyard. He talks to the other inmates. They communicate with him and give him apiece of string.
F. is allowed to wash
Knocking with his neighbor
He writes the letter and gives it back to the inmates. The danger of being caught is imminent. The other inmates give him sugar, a pin and a razor blade (which is not used again)
Using the pin, Fontaine opens the cuffs. His letters have been posted and sent. Inmates warn him to be careful.
In an office -“Judge” accuses Fontaine – He promises not to try to escape again (and immediately denies it). In the cell he gets his first meal.
He is in the cell and sees female inmates and hears the executions. His neighbor is still alive.
In the new cell. The Routine
He is taken to a new cell in the top floor and he is uncuffed. The neighbors don't answer. NOTE: The guards make clanking noises on the stair's rails.
First time we see him at the washing drill. He sees his silent neighbor. The routine is explained in detail.
Washing scene – he starts to exchange information with other prisoners. Then everybody goes back to their cells.
Alone in the cell. He will escape (motive)
Examining the door – it could be broken, if he was careful. He organizes a spoon and sharpens it on the ground.
He starts working on the planks of the door, detailling his examinations in voice-over. Very carefully he progresses separating the planks. (loads of closeups of hands)
Thierry from the court is taken somewhere else. His former neighbor has been executed. He is more motivated to work now.
Washing scene – the priest is introduced. Fontaine gives him his pen.
More working on the door. His neighbor opposite keeps watch for him.
His neighbor doesn't want to talk. Fontaine is afraid and stops working on the door.
Washing 3 – (Music). His neighbor falls down and Fontaine helps him get up.
Now his neighbor, Blanchett will talk to him. He is annoyed about Fontaine's scratching. But Fontaine can go on with his work.
Door: He breaks a spoon – and needs a new one. But he is progressing.
Wash 4: The priest has got hold of a bible (It is not explained how). Fontaine finds another spoon.
Door: He manages to break off a piece of the frame. A bit too much. He puts it back in place and uses splinters to hold it there.
He talks to his neighbor, trying to inspire him to work towards some kind of freedom or goal. The neighbor has resigned, but gives valuable information to Fontaine.
Wash 5: His neighbor opposite also has escape plans. He has been betrayed by his wife.
Door: First time he takes out the door planks.
Hall: Fontaine sneaks out through the door into the corridor. He wipes out an assignment not to give food to a certain door. Then he sneaks back into his cell. (character revealing)
Neighbor: talk about escaping. But doesn't know how. Now there's also knocking. Somebody moans.
Wash 6: (MUSIC) Examines the security of the prison. The priest gives him moral support and advice. There's a short discussion about God. Orsini announces his escape vaguely.
Skylight and Hooks
He notices the skylight by watching a soldier opposite his cell operating it.
Gets out the door and climbs up to the skylight. And gets on the roof, nearly breaking the glass in the window. Quickly, he goes back.
Wash 7: Orsini and Fontaine both have escape plans. Orsini's approach is different and not as well planned.
Rope: Fontaine takes apart the bed and gets wire from the mattress. He starts making the rope from cloth and the wire.
Wash 8: Orsini has no patience to wait. He gives Fontaine the details of his plan. Fontaine doesn't like the ideas too well.
Neighbor: Also the neighbor doesn't like the plan.
Wash 9: Orsini was questioned – He think's he will be released.
Wash 10: Orsini runs off. (Which probably means that Orsini was condemned to death by the "Judge" and that he lied to Fontaine in the scene before) Fontaine tries to figure out what's going on. But he has no chance to talk to Orsini anymore. He sees him running awa. MUSIC.
Fontaine back in his cell sees that Orsini was captured and is brought back to his cell and beaten (just hear it don't see it) – Orsini gives him important information about the hooks.
The “man with the hat” gets Orsini
Wash 11: They discuss Orsini's premature escape. The priest gives Fontaine a piece from the bible. When he reads it to his neighbor, they hear Orsini's execution.
Hook: Carefully, Fontaine dissembles the metal frame inside his cell, carefully breaking the glass. He gets rid of the shards in the drain.
He starts to make plans of the building, taking measuremants to bend the hooks the right way. Careful of making a mistake.
Neighbor: They discuss details of the plan. There has been a change in the neighbor.
Hook: Construction continues, using the wires.
Prison court: Everybody is told that smuggling letters outside will lead to execution. The prisoners are supposed to hand in their pencils. Fontaine has one, but at the last moment decides not to give it to the officer.
Fontaine gets a parcel. It's full of clothes. There is also a glass container of some sort. (Never shows up again) – Fontaine rips apart all the textiles and braids a long rope. His neighbor gives him another blanket.
Wash 12: Prison is filling up. There is another priest. Suspecting that there are spies among the prisoners.
Neighbor: You are waiting to long. Fontaine asks his cell neighbor for help but the man declines. Wash 13: You are waiting to long Neighbor: It's a question of faith – you have to do it
Office – The “Judge” condemns Fontaine to death. On his way back, he is afraid they might shoot him immediately. But they bring him back to the cell.
Jost enters the cell
Enter a new cell mate. A young boy, Francois Jost. Fontaine suspects him of being a stool pigeon. Fontaine goes on and on questioning him, not knowing if he could trust him.
When they go to sleep, Fontaine considers killing him. MUSIC
Wash 14: He is pressured to leave asap. And also told to be careful
Finally, Fontaine is won over. (In a conversation about lice) – When the guard comes to get somebody from the neighboring cell, he fears that they're coming for him. Now he has to take the plunge and trust the boy. He very carefully asks him questions about escape.
Fontaine shows Jost the secret hiding place for the pencil. Jost is amazed that it's not allowed to have pencils.
During the night, Fontaine still considers killing Jost.
Wash 15: Fontaine gives his last wishes t the priest – The soldier doesn't search the priests garments.
He lets Jost in on the secret. He shows him the loose planks, the hooks and the rope. Jost agrees to go with him.
They make the last rope. It takes them two hours. They clean up the cell.
He says goodbye to the neighbor. He tells Jost how to walk silently. Then they wait for the search lights to go up. Fontaine knocks goodbye to the neighbor.
The two climb on the roof. The guards make a lot of noise, footsteps and for the first time a train can be heard in the background. Fontaine notices some weird squeaking noise. The clock strikes midnight.They look over the side and Fontaine watches the guard for over an hour, to make sure he knows his movements exactly.
The put down the rope and Fontaine climbs down (Jost refuses to go down first). He kills the guard, we don't see how. The train drowns the noise of the killing. He asks Jost to come down.
They go over to climb the second wall. Jost is of good use to Fontaine. They come to the last barrier – a kind of circular court, they have to cross.
There is a soldier on a bike, riding around – there is a distinct voice in the background, but I'm not quite sure how it relates to the soldier on the bike. Fontaine throws the rope to the other side. It hangs into a wire. But Fontaine hesitates to go.
When he hears the clock strike four, he has to make a decision. A train whistles, and he finally climbs over.
Fontaine jumps down the outer wall. Jost follows him immediately. MUSIC
They walk down the streets, disappearing into dark and smoke. The End.