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…
No-one seems particularly interested in being part of the contest, not even the homely Rosie, whose father has been plying the committee with free drinks to persuade them to pick her. When the time comes for the announcement of the beauty queen, the unwilling contestants lock themselves in the ladies toilets, leaving the men on the dance floor to try forcibly dragging remaining womenfolk to the stage in a raucous and ugly scene.
The missing tombola prizes continue to baffle Josef, as items still keep disappearing even under the watchful eye of his wife.
Once Josef has discovered that his wife is involved in the theft of the prizes the film takes a darker hue, and Forman’s satirical concerns start to reveal themselves. Her response to the accusation, “Everyone steals”, seems to nod to the cynical proverb that took hold during Communism: “Kto nekradne, okráda svoju rodinu” or, “He who doesn’t steal, steals from his family.”
Just as the ball is descending into ugly farce with the conclusion of the beauty contest, a bell sounds and the firemen are called out to a blaze at an old man’s cottage. The assembled party-goers follow them without paying for their drinks. The firefighting effort is a non-starter, as their fire truck is stuck in the snow. This leaves the firemen doing what they can to rescue the old man’s belongings while uselessly shovelling snow into the flames. The owner of the hall sees an opportunity to make some money back by selling drinks to the rubbernecking crowd. The firemen, unable to help the distraught old man who is suffering from the cold, are simply instructed to move him closer to the fire to keep him warm.
How this story thread combines with the tombola plotline is the film’s real kicker, revealing the townsfolk as ultimately charitable but defeated in their attempts to help the old man out by their previous selfish actions. His reaction to their efforts is a double, if pragmatic, slap in the face.
Forman casts largely non-professional actors with great effect, as he would – albeit in smaller roles – in his later American masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The main “character” is the firemen’s committee itself, which acts almost like one body. In lieu of back story or even names, he makes use of remarkable faces to distinguish the individuals of this group. There’s the head of the committee, a bumptious, bespectacled man reminiscent of Captain Mainwaring in the beloved British sitcom Dad’s Army, which similarly poked fun at a smalltown group of volunteers. There’s the bald one with the lecherous face; the burly one who looks like he could easily be cast as an Italian-American eating meatballs and spaghetti in his tank top in an episode of The Sopranos; the tall gaunt one who looks like Lurch from The Addams Family.
This all gives the film veracity and occasionally handheld camera is employed, giving it a Cinéma vérité feel at times. The screenplay is also ingeniously arranged so that the accumulating incidents of the evening develop organically, almost as if Forman and his crew were shooting a real event.
Later in his life, Forman would go on record to say:
“I didn’t want to give any special message or allegory. I wanted just to make a comedy knowing that if I’ll be real, if I’ll be true, the film will automatically reveal an allegorical sense. That’s a problem of all governments, of all committees, including firemen’s committees. That they try and they pretend and they announce that they are preparing a happy, gay, amusing evening or life for the people. And everybody has the best intentions… But suddenly things turn out in such a catastrophic way that, for me, this is a vision of what’s going on today in the world.”
The feeling I get from that quote from 2005 is that Forman was trying to be more magnanimous than he originally intended when he made the film under communist rule back in the ’60s. But the truth of The Firemen’s Ball is that it feels like a film that can be as narrow or as broad as you want it to be, depending on your sensibilities or whatever historic or present-day situation you want to apply it to.
What I ultimately took away from the film was that, as cynical as it undoubtedly is, it casts humans as the victim of a larger tragicomic play, whether political, biological, or cosmic, that they are ultimately unable to escape or control. And, as usual with Forman, he captures all that with his innate sense of grace, wisdom and wit.