Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, 1967), by Miloš Forman.
Miloš Forman’s last Czech film, The Firemen’s Ball, starts as a light-hearted farce. By the time the film reaches its masterful third act, it has become a tragicomedy of tremendous allegorical power.
When a firemen’s ball goes south
It can be read 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. Czechoslovakia‘s Communist party certainly saw it as the latter, resulting in the film getting “banned forever”.
The story is slender but builds irrevocably towards its conclusion, where details that seem innocuous in the set up take on massive significance. The committee of a smalltown fire department is arranging a ball. Entrance is 8 Kc 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. The fireman in charge of the tombola, Josef (Josef Kolb), 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 has an ulterior motive, as the middle-aged committee members use it as an excuse to ogle young women.
No-one seems particularly interested in being part of the contest. When the time comes to announce the beauty queen, the unwilling contestants lock themselves in the women’s toilets. Meanwhile, the missing tombola prizes continue to baffle Josef, as items still keep disappearing even under the watchful eye of his wife.
Farce and benevolence in small town Czechoslovakia
Once Josef has discovered the true culprit, the film takes a darker hue, and Forman’s satirical concerns start to reveal themselves. His wife’s response to an accusation, “Everyone steals”, lends a 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 descends into ugly farce with the conclusion of the beauty contest, a bell sounds and the firemen rush 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…
The way this storyline combines with the tombola plot thread is the film’s real kicker. It shows the townsfolk as ultimately charitable, but defeated in their attempts to help the old man by their previous selfish actions. His comically pragmatic reaction to their efforts is a double slap in the face.
Forman casts largely non-professional actors with great effect, as he would for 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. Instead of back story or even names, he makes use of remarkable faces to distinguish the individuals of this group.
A tragicomic play
There is the Head of the Committee (Jan Vostrčil), a bumptious man reminiscent of Captain Mainwaring in the British sitcom Dad’s Army, which similarly poked fun at a group of small town volunteers. There is also the bald one with the lecherous face; the burly one who could be cast as an Italian-American stereotype eating meatballs and spaghetti in his tank top in a Hollywood movie; the tall gaunt one who looks like Lurch from The Addams Family.
This all gives The Firemen’s Ball a sense of veracity and occasionally Forman deploys a handheld camera, giving it a cinéma verité feel at times. The screenplay is 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 in the 1960’s. The truth of The Firemen’s Ball is that it can be as narrow or as broad as you want, depending on your sensibilities and whatever context you wish to apply.
What I ultimately took away from the film was that, as cynical as it undoubtedly is, it casts mankind as the victim of a larger tragicomic play – political, biological, or cosmic – that they are unable to escape or control. As usual with Forman, he captures all that with his innate sense of grace, wisdom and wit.
By Lee Adams
Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic, and the founder of Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.