In a genre crowded with quality films, director Robert Bresson's POW drama has become legendary, in part because it strips down the experience of a man desperate to escape to the essentials. That's in keeping with the approach Bresson took with all of his films.
The filmmaker, who spent a year in a German prison camp during World War II, based this story on the experiences of Andre Devigny, a French Resistance fighter sent in 1943 to the infamous prison in Lyons, where 7,000 of the 10,000 prisoners housed there died either by natural means or by execution.
Lt. Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) is certain that execution awaits him, and he almost immediately begins planning his escape, using homemade tools and an ingenuity for detecting the few weaknesses in the prison's structure and routine. For a time, he goes it alone, then takes on a partner, but only reluctantly.
Fontaine does get some help from a couple of prisoners allowed to stroll in the exercise yard, but for the most part he is a figure in isolation. For Bresson, the process of escape is all, and in simplifying his narrative he ratchets up the tension, creating a film story of survival that many feel is without peer.