The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko) – Miloš Forman, 1967

Miloš Forman’s last Czech film, The Firemen’s Ball, starts off as a lighthearted farce. By the time the film reaches its masterful third act, it has become a tragicomedy of tremendous allegorical power.

It can be seen in numerous ways. A literal reading got Forman in hot water with real fire crews up and down the land, who saw it as an attack on their honour and integrity, resulting in Forman touring the country to make amends. You could interpret it as an indictment of human foibles and corruptibility; a satire on corporate groupthink; or a stealth condemnation of the Communist system. The Czechoslovakian Communist party certainly saw it as the latter, resulting in the film being “banned forever”.

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The story is slight but builds irrevocably towards its conclusion, where details that seem innocuous in the set up suddenly take on massive significance. The committee of a small-town fire department is arranging a ball. The entry is 8kc and attractions include a band, a tombola and a beauty pageant. The guest of honour is the firemen’s retired president, and the plan is to get the winner of the beauty contest to present him with a ceremonial axe for his 86th birthday.

Things quickly go south. One of the firemen, Josef (Josef Kolb), is in charge of the tombola and is panicked when the prizes start going missing before the doors even open. The committee hasn’t selected their contestants for the pageant yet, and hurriedly spend the early part of the ball trying to recruit prospects from the attendees. The selection process also seems to have an ulterior motive, as the largely middle-aged committee see it as an excuse to ogle young women…

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Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět) – Jan Svěrák, 2001

Much like Michael Bay’s mega-budget travesty Pearl Harbor from the same year, Jan Svěrák’s Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět) squanders a fascinating true story in order to indulge in a tepid love triangle. The sad thing is, while all of Pearl Harbor is awful, it’s only the romantic element of Dark Blue World that brings it into disrepute, tainting an otherwise rousing tale.

The film opens in 1950 with our main protagonist, Franta Sláma (Ondřej Vetchý) banged up in a gloomy prison, having been incarcerated by the communists for his time serving in the RAF during World War II. We then flashback to before the war and happier times with his girlfriend before the Germans marched in.

Dark Blue World DVD

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With the Czechoslovak Army disbanded, Franta and a group of other fliers, including his young hotheaded protégé Karel Vojtíšek (Kryštof Hádek) escape to England to join the RAF. Once there the pilots are sidelined initially, taking part in pointless exercises, learning English, and gazing enviously at the dogfights going on in the skies above them. As the Battle of Britain intensifies the RAF is in constant need of more pilots, so our boys soon get their chance. After a few teething problems they’re soon gunning down German planes with glee, getting a little revenge for all the folks back home…

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Loners (Samotáři) – David Ondříček, 2000

Loners (Samotáři) was the first Czech film I saw in a movie theatre. I was on a teacher training course in Prague at the time, and there was a buzz going around that it was the Czech answer to Trainspotting. I ended up getting completely rat arsed before, during and after the screening, so I couldn’t remember a single thing about it.

That complete blackout has always made Loners something I’ve been eager to revisit. Trainspotting flash-froze a zeitgeist so perfectly that it felt dated by the time it came out on video, so if Loners truly was in any way equivalent, how would it stand the test of time? It’s now half my life since that drunken cinema visit – I was in my early twenties then. What, if anything, would the movie say to me now as a father of two in my early forties?

Loners Blu Ray

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Well first up, the Trainspotting comparison was way off. I can kind of see why people at the time were making the analogy, as it focuses on the lives of twenty-somethings in the city and there are drugs involved, albeit ganja rather than smack. Other than that, Loners is a very ho-hum, meandering, mildly amusing look at the lives of a group of young-ish people at the turn of the Millenium. It’s unfair to compare the two really, but since I’ve already started I may as well continue by saying it also lacks Trainspotting‘s vivacity, bleak humour, empathy, and directorial verve. If Trainspotting was a howl of defiance in the dark, Loners is more like a shrug of indifference in a Starbucks…

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