Prisoners, All

By Tim Winterstein

I was a little worried that The Prisoner (1955; streaming on the Criterion Channel and for free on Amazon Prime video) wouldn’t live up to its controversy. (Thanks to whomever recommended it. Dan B., maybe? Sorry!) According to a book on Alec Guinness, it was withdrawn from Cannes and banned from the Venice Film Festival. Apparently, it was considered both pro-Communist and anti-Communist, both pro-Catholic and anti-Catholic, depending on the country.

In some ways, those political and religious issues cloud the deeper themes of the movie. Because of those sorts of descriptions, I expected a straightforward conflict between Communism and Christianity. If that truly had been the sole theme, the film would have been a disappointment. Some of it feels like the play it originally was. Some of it is the melodramatic shots and delivery, combined with a certain kind of score, that seem typical of films made in the 1950s. But, again, if that is all there is, it’s a disappointment, especially to a modern audience.

The Prisoner begins as a psychological battle of wits between two equally confident men: the Interrogator and the Cardinal, who are not given actual names. They exist as characters, but not as types. The film does well to make them real people rather than types of greater ideas. The character of the cardinal is based most closely on Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac of Croatia (Guinness even resembles Stepinac). There are also elements from the life of Cardinal József Mindszenty of Hungary.

Both of those men faced show trials and were convicted of working against their respective States. Although’s Stepinac’s activities and sympathies during World War II continue to raise questions, he was certainly detained by the Communists and accused of cooperating with the Nazi-backed Croatian national party. Of the new Communist regime, The Prisoner‘s Cardinal says to the Interrogator, who is trying to catch him off guard with friendly banter, “Honestly, hadn’t we better come to the point? Your masters are in a hurry. People who want to make heaven on earth usually are.”

The Prisoner approaches the Cardinal’s actions as essentially innocent, though he eventually “confesses” to everything, including betraying his own country’s resistance by giving information to the Nazis. That connection pulls out the moral ambiguity of the Cardinal, not by implicating him in the crimes of the Nazis (as, perhaps, the real Cardinal Stepinac may have been), but in essentially being a fraud. This allows the film to move from simply being a struggle between equally adept minds to a deeper examination of motives. The Cardinal is a hero to his people, in part because he played a part in their unnamed country’s resistance during the war, suffering also at the hands of the Gestapo. Now he’s been elevated to a high position in the church, and his cathedral is full.

But after months of deprivation, the Interrogator begins to question the Cardinal about his motives for becoming a priest. Here the false guilt to which the regime wants him to confess comes together with his own personal guilt, both real and compounded by his hunger and exhaustion.

The Prisoner doesn’t strike me cinematically as a great movie (and maybe it worked better on the stage). But its narrative power is much stronger, especially as its second act focuses on the prison of shame in which the Cardinal has constructed his life. He is bound by his selfish motives to pursue self-justification through the priesthood—because it’s better and higher to serve God than to serve the academy. “I wanted to justify myself to myself. To me, not to God,” he says. And that, in turn, is fueled by his shame over his mother’s sins, which has caused him to hate her. But those impure motives bring him, by way of psychological torture, to break, as the Interrogator promised he would. Afterward, the Interrogator says to his protege, “He believed me when I told him his whole world was built on pride. A proud man would have been more skeptical.”

And yet, even in his surrender and confession, he cannot free himself from self-justification. If he can’t justify himself by serving God and rising higher in the church, perhaps he can justify and cover his shame by degrading himself before the people who trusted in him and were confident of his innocence. So when he actually does confess to everything with which he is charged, the disappointment is apparent in the courtroom. But as the Interrogator visits the cathedral (the cathedra now empty), the church itself is full of peaceful and praying people.

The third part of the film prods the Interrogator’s uneasiness until he realizes that he’s made an ideological prison for himself. In his resignation, he becomes the mirror image of the Cardinal when he first came into the interrogation room: confident in his position, with the certainty of a truth that exists outside and above the State. The Interrogator’s conversion is a secular one, but a conversion nonetheless. His confidence, which does not reside in the power of the State, is dangerous to that State. We are left with little doubt that he will be pursued as unpityingly as they had pursued the Cardinal (though we do not know if he will use his gun on himself or on his pursuers).  

In the end, the final words of the Cardinal are embodied by both the Interrogator and the Christians of his country. He says to one of the guards, “Try not to judge the priesthood by the priest.” Not an easy thing to do in our time, witness to so much sexual misconduct, sin, and evil on the parts of those who were indeed held up as monuments to the holiness of the Church. They have been, as the Interrogator says, monuments defaced.

The Prisoner, both in its historical elements and as a film, highlights how different is the climate surrounding the Church—especially the Roman Church—in the world, or at least in the United States. It seems doubtful that any higher official of the Roman Church, or any significant figure in the other churches, would find such a reception as the Cardinal does when he walks out of the prison. When it is far more than one priest’s failure, people will indeed judge the priesthood by the holders of it.

This is not (it should be obvious) merely a Roman problem. The unbelieving world will not, on the whole, make distinctions between Christian churches or even between religions. In one of his sermons, after the Croatian fascist Ustashe had destroyed Zagreb’s main cathedral, Cardinal Stepinac said, “A House of God, of whatever religion, is a holy place. Whoever touches such a place will pay with his life. An attack on a House of God of any religion constitutes an attack on all religious communities.”

Whatever the actual truth of the first sentence, the twentieth century’s dictatorships of both Right and Left are the irrefutable evidence that when the State attacks one religious body, it will attack all of them, because all of them hold that the State is subject to something or Someone outside itself. This is the greatest heresy to the religion of the State. There can be nothing above and nothing outside the State; everything is encompassed by the State.

So it is no good to say that Christians or pastors of any tradition are not implicated in the sins and crimes of those of another tradition. The differentiation that exists in doctrine does not exist before the State or before those who would uphold the absoluteness of the State (or of some irrational and incoherent idea such as Tolerance, or pure emotivism). This, more than anything, forces all Christians to walk (often clumsily or ineptly) the line between holding individuals responsible for their actions, while not judging “the priesthood by the priest.”

The Prisoner prompts us to examine the walls of the prisons we have all built for ourselves, whether hypocritical, self-justifying, apathetic, or statist. What would it mean to be free of this prison? And is the freedom of those on the outside actual or illusory? The prisoners and martyrs of all times and places have taken it for granted that it is better to be imprisoned with the One who transcends all walls than to be “free” outside of Him who is the only freedom for the sons of God.