Four prison inmates have been hatching a plan to literally dig out of jail when another prisoner, Claude Gaspard, is moved into their cell. They take a risk and share their plan with the newcomer. Over the course of three days, the prisoners and friends break through the concrete floor using a bed post and begin to make their way through the sewer system -- yet their escape is anything but assured.
Once you think about it, almost all movies hide and obscure the act of labour: think of the many montage sequences that skirt over the actual work behind achieving anything of real value. This is especially so when that work is humdrum, routine or performed by minorities and/or by the working class. Cinema naturally hides behind the excuse of not wishing to 'bore' the audience, but it should be remembered that there are political—as well as artistic—implications to this erasure of hard work. This tendency is not limited to labour or the big screen, of course, for all this should be seen within the context of the more-recent erasure of politics in American cinema or the acts of erasure in the images that comprise urban photography but also in the broader erasure of labour more generally that is the domain of Marxist writers and thinkers.
So beyond the obvious anti-establishment and David versus Goliath implications of depicting breaking out from a state-operated prison, there is also an additional political dimension to Le Trou in that it depicts an escape attempt in such exacting detail. This has immediate effects on what we see, of course, but it also changes who we see as well, as Chris Fujiwara describes in his essay for the Criterion Channel:
The degree to which the director [Jacques Becker] subjugates himself to the detail of his characters’ lives and actions is extraordinary: it accounts for why, in each film, we tend to lose sight of Becker, who not only refuses to comment on his characters, but also refrains from any telling lapse in tone that might make us aware of his own self-abnegation as a source of aesthetic value.
Le Trou not only shows the negotiations between captives and captors, the ambient violence of prison life and the cellmates making their escape tools, but it also shows the cellmates solving various logistical and 'workplace' issues, such as the administrative work of getting a leaking water faucet in their cell fixed. This is all conveyed in a kind of kind of cinematic ekphrasis, yet the viewer's attention is handled in another way as well:
Crucial to our experience of the film is Becker’s control of temporality. As Roland hammers away at the stone floor of the cell, the camera records his progress in a high-angle close shot. Exhausted, Roland cedes the hammer to Manu, who continues—and, surprisingly, the shot too continues, without a cut, making us aware that we are watching people expend the exact amount of effort required to produce the effects on the stone that we see. Manu passes the hammer to Géo, the smashed surface now covered in rubble and dust; Roland picks up the hammer after Géo has dropped it, and uses a pan to clear away dirt and rocks. Altogether, an unbroken take of just under four minutes. By forcing us to share a collective duration with the heroes, Becker leads us to become involved more intensely—in their collective struggle.
Jacques Becker's other great work, Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), also has a similar interest in the seemingly mundane parts of life. At one particularly tense moment in Grisbi, Gabin and his partner hole up and to plan their next move over a late night meal of crackers and pâté. When it’s time to go to bed, Gabin gives him a toothbrush and pajamas and we are treated to seeing Gabin brushing his teeth… and we are weirdly gripped by both the detail and the kind and tender touch. In fact, given that Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) shows a heist in similar minute detail, one is tempted to believe that this attempt at verisimilitude is a particularly, if not uniquely, French obsession. But perhaps it is a broader Francophile one: Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976) is arresting not merely that it depicts Jeanne performing a number of boring (ie. invisible) chores but because the viewer becomes slowly, if not subliminally, aware that the overwhelming majority of films hide this from us.
All this is to say is that if The Great Escape (1963) is principally concerned with the soldierly camaraderie of escape during wartime, Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1957) is interested in the spirituality and Christian allegory of being imprisoned, Le Trou is chiefly about the labour of escape: the literal digging of the titular 'hole', and, to quote Fujiwara again, how "reality is molded and altered by hands and tools, faith and doubt, language and perception". Curiously, Le Trou is not interested in depicting the guards as sadists or borderline fascists as they are in Cool Hand Luke (1967) or Jules Dassin's Brute Force (1947) — indeed, one of the revelations of Le Trou is that the prison guards are shown to be pretty reasonable guys, and the film extends these workers a further nod of approval by depicting their labour as well, including them continuously locking and unlocking doors, their speed and adroitness in checking incoming food parcels as well showing how that they are surveilled by proxy through the timeclocks scattered throughout the prison.
Le Trou is anything but cold and unappealing, for there's an undeniable, multi-levelled pleasure to watching them attempting to escape; the kind of pleasure you can feel at seeing anything done well. And, like all prison break narratives, Le Trou is, of course, also a film about the enviable brotherhood of the cellmates. Yet it is, perhaps to a greater extent, more interested in the precise opposite of camaraderie: alienation. Here's Fujiwara again:
Throughout the film, we’re reminded that Gaspard’s relationship with the group is fragile, [and] it's because of Gaspard’s apartness that we perceive and value the others’ closeness; his alienation makes us realize the importance of their fellowship, just as his sense of not fully participating in the group drives him to take the measure of his solitude. […] The wondrous climax of this development is the emergence of Manu and Gaspard through a manhole to stare at the prison walls from outside. The force of the scene—one of the most mysterious epiphanies in cinema—comes partly from the tension between the two men’s points of view. Gaspard, as usual, feels compelled to give voice to his wonder and his longing, while Manu’s silence implies that even now he is seeing not just for himself but for the group.
Observing Gaspard's alienation is essential in light of the final few minutes, and I'll only note here that the author of the book on which this film is based, José Giovanni, was a Nazi collaborator who blackmailed, tortured and murdered Jews, even after the Occupation had ended. Let the implications of that sink in whilst the credits roll…