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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