The Firemen’s Ball (‘Hori ma panenko’, 1967) was Milos Forman’s first color and last Czech film. Why would a comedy about incompetent firefighters, belonging to a small provisional town, enrage the Communist Party so as to halt its release and subsequently lead to the film-maker’s self-imposed exile? In fact, The Firemen’s Ball was made at the height of the period of liberalization called ‘Prague Spring’. The wrath of the establishment is easily discernible once you look at the picture: it’s not difficult to equate the shirking, cumbersome firemen with the corrupt leaders of the communist politburo. Moreover, there were broader social implications in Forman’s depiction of the raucously silly townspeople, assembled for the ball (detached from all the propagandized socialist ideals). Carlo Ponti, the film’s Italian producer was also outraged by the movie and pulled his financing. But luckily for Forman, French film-makers Francois Truffaut and Claude Berri purchased the film. After routine delays and efforts to suppress ‘Firemen’s Ball’ eventually released in theatres in July 1968. But when Soviet tanks rolled into the streets of Prague on August 1968, the authorities banned the film ‘forever’ (i.e., until the collapse of the Soviet Union).

After Stalin’s demise, his successor Nikita Khruschev initiated the ‘Thaw’ which led to relative relaxation or liberalization among the Soviet Communist regimes. In early 1960s (particularly in the year 1963), new generation of Czech film-makers, most graduated from FAMU (the famous Prague film school), started crafting a film-making language that challenged the homogenous, canonical aesthetics of Stalinism. Vera Chytilova, Jaromil Jires, Stefan Uher and Milos Forman made their debut feature in 1963, who were all followed by other prominent film-makers of the era, including Jiri Menzel, Evald Schorm, Ivan Passer, Jan Nemec, Juraj Herz, and Karel Kachyna. By the time Firemen’s Ball went into production, the film movement was gaining prominence, already reaping two ‘Foreign Language Oscars’ (for The Shop on Main Street & Closely Watched Trains).

Although, the Czech New Wave borrowed elements from cinema verite, avant-garde, Italian neo-realism, and French New Wave (film-making techniques that contrasts one another), the film-makers infused a distinct brand of poetic realism and absurdist humor that sharply lampooned the establishment. Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966) and The Firemen’s Ball, however, are my most favorite among the Czech New Wave – both are dynamically paced farce, showing the proverbial middle-finger to the political system and censors with anarchic glee.

Firemen’s Ball

Mr. Forman was surrounded by propaganda, first peddled by the Nazis and later by the Stalinists. His family history was tragic: parents seized by Gestapo and condemned to the Nazi death-camps. Forman forged a strong friendship with fellow film-maker and writer Ivan Passer (from their boarding school days). Ivan made one of the best works in Czech New Wave, titled ‘Intimate Lighting’ (1965), who also worked as the assistant director and co-writer in Milos’ films. Ivan accompanied Milos when he got out of Czech to Paris, and later to Hollywood. Although Ivan didn’t have a successful film-making career like Milos who received two directing Oscars (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest & Amadeus), they stayed friends till Mr. Forman’s death on April 2018. Another important person who helped Milos realize his artistic vision was the cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. Mr. Ondricek worked with Milos from his debut feature ‘Audition (1963) and also later collaborated with the director in some of his American films.

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The Firemen’s Ball was clearly a leap for Forman, particularly in terms of style. And it was perfectly envisioned and executed due to his collaboration with Ondricek and co-writers Ivan Passer & Jaroslav Papousek. In Firemen’s ball, Forman employed a bigger cinematic canvas compared to his previous works, Loves of a Blonde (1965) and Black Peter (1964). Set in a distressing industrial town, Loves of a Blonde was a girl-meets-boy story enlaced with acerbic irony and dark humor that became the director’s trademark.  But the film had a protagonist and a narrative arc, held together by individual little chunks of story and multiple cuts. Forman’s camera in Firemen’s Ball rather takes in (or studies) lot of human faces without a predestined story-line or a dramatic build-up of characters. He seems to microscopically observe the human absurdity and weaknesses that naturally doubles-up as a blistering political metaphor.

The satirical and broadly ironical tone of the movie is all set in the pre-credits sequence. It opens with the close-up shot of a miniature golden fire axe, a treasured gift that’s passed amongst the elderly & middle-aged firemen sitting at the table. The fire brigade of the small-town has organized a ball to honor their 86-year-old retiring chairman. Raffle tickets and a beauty pageant are the chief attractions of the party. The winner of the beauty pageant would award the retiring chairman the precious fire axe. At least that was the plan, but the incompetence of the zealous organizers results in collection of amusing disasters. Starting from the pre-credits scene, Forman hints that everything is a masquerade, while comically unveiling what would happen when human pettiness meets false idealism.

In the opening scene, the firemen discuss whether they are too late in awarding their chairman. They are questioning the appropriateness of organizing the party now, since they only recently came to know about the octogenarian’s cancer diagnosis. The town hall is being prepared for the ball; a big, hand-drawn banner of firemen involved in their heroic pursuit hangs from the ceiling. A young man standing on a ladder uses a blow-torch to unevenly singe the edges of the banner to give it a symbolical power. The ladder is held by one of the firemen, who engage in a fight with another one over the disappearance of one of the raffle prizes (kept at a table at one corner of the hall). The ladder falls down, the young man hangs from the beam shouting for help, and the banner is on fire. The two firemen along with the retired chairman try to operate the faulty fire extinguisher, unconcerned about the man’s cries for help.

Firemen’s Ball

The chaos escalates over the night with the firemen leering at the attractive young women in the party to select contestants for the beauty pageant. Once these exaggeratedly awkward local girls are gathered, the men don’t have an idea what to do, often consulting a foreign magazine. Lacking any original ideas, they ask the girls to march in military-style; the girls obediently do the task while barely controlling their laughter. Milos Forman lets the absurd, inappropriate scenarios to unfold in a very natural way, extracting hysterical laughs. Josef, the most hilarious of the bungling firemen, keeps an eye on the table of lottery gifts, but is unable to stop the thievery. The stupidity and helpless gestures of the firemen are perfectly in contrast with the composed state of the senile retired chairman. The old man’s slow walk to the marching tunes happen at the most inappropriate moments, and his confusion is genuinely funny.

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Like any well-executed satire, Forman gradually introduces bitter notes into the comedy, the hysterical laughs reduced to dry chuckles and by the end, he shrewdly recognizes the victims of this disorder. The purely visual humor of the earlier half paves way to Forman’s main thematic concerns as an unfortunate old man sees his house consumed by flames, while the fire brigade shovels snow at the raging fire because their fire engine is caught under the snow. Right from the Soviet revolution days, Communist regimes are obsessed with idealized groups that act together as a single unit for the greater good. In The Firemen’s Ball, Forman presents us a group that’s very much defined by their indecisiveness, dishonesty, empty gestures, and petty thievery; in other words, they are very human. The indecisiveness looks hilarious when antiquated firemen gather around to choose beauty pageant contestants. The ironical note in the group’s empty gesture is clearly emphasized when they offer the homeless old man the raffle tickets, the prizes to which are stolen long before (the fireman addressing the group stumbles on to the word ‘solidarity’ which is totally absent). Towards the end, a firefighter is even censured by his colleagues for an honest act, one even saying “The prestige of the brigade is more important than my honesty!”

Even if one has little understanding of the era’s political climate, Firemen’s Ball could be enjoyed for the natural comedy and brilliantly executed mise-en-scene. Forman and his co-writers are so smart in crafting this portrait of human silliness. Although the film-maker makes us laugh at these characters, he also extracts humanity from such a very simple story. In this manner, Forman is said to attune to Chaplin’s comedic philosophy, i.e., infusing a layer of melancholy to the people’s stupid and dishonest behavior. We are not just laughing at the Czechs of the 1960s, but at the discernible patterns of human behavior (or to put it simply, we are laughing at ourselves). The Firemen’s Ball ends with a sad and poetic shot of the old man lying down on a cot in the snow-covered landscape. Back then, it might have symbolized a particular nation’s population that goes on living as if nothing happened and deceiving themselves that everything is normal. Now that imagery channels a universal commentary on sociopolitics as much as Forman’s acute behavioral observation.

Overall, The Firemen’s Ball (74 minutes) is an essential viewing for cineastes and would serve as an ideal introductory point to the Czech New Wave cinema.

The Firemen’s Ball Links: IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes

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