“From the director who brought you One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus and The People vs Larry Flynt comes a comedy about the wackiest party in town!”
Okay, so we flipped the order and put a Hollywood-style spin on the plot synopsis of The Firemen’s Ball in our enthusiasm to hard-sell an early masterwork from a leading Czech New Wave director. Milos Forman is one of the most well-known names of the 1960s filmmaking movement from the former Czech Republic simply because he later forged a successful career in America. The cultural moment under Communist rule resulted in censorship-bending films from such renowned directors as Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilova and Ivan Passer. The movies usually deployed a verite shooting style and explored socially relevant themes that were often filmed on non-professional actors who represented the people being moulded into perfect comrades by the authoritarian state.
Dark, absurdist and surreal humour proved to be a useful tool to express the exasperation that the masses felt towards a regime high on moral righteousness but low on delivery. In The Firemen’s Ball (1967), a rapidly disappearing spread of food and other items that is to be auctioned during a celebration organised by the fire department of a Czech town is a perfect metaphor for the inability of the socialism-oriented state to provide for its people. When the wife of one of the organisers is caught stealing a prized chunk of cheese, she is unrepentant. “Everyone is stealing here and you only watch, you honest idiot!” she tells her horrified husband.
The comedy brilliantly lampoons a culture of officiousness and ceremony that will be intensely familiar to Indians. The 71-minute film follows the bumbling efforts of the fire department’s “entertainment committee” to organise a raffle and a party as a retirement gift for their 86-year-old chairman. An early warning that nothing will go according to plan comes when a poster for the event catches fire even as two of the committee members squabble over trifles.
As the fire officers and their families and locals gather in a large hall and dance to a waltz version of the Beatles song “From Me To You”, the elderly members of the organising committee get down to the very important business of shortlisting young women to participate in a beauty contest. The lechery on display gets its comeuppance when it is time to send the skittish young women on the stage.
An actual fire later breaks out, prompting the buzzed guests to flee towards the next source of the evening’s entertainment. The food and beverages supplier will not allow his guests to escape without payment, and he relocates his business to a spot close to the raging fire, proving his entrepreneurial skills.
Forman made his debut in 1956 and earned a reputation with the romantic drama Loves of a Blonde in 1965. He had previously worked with non-professionals, but it must have taken some skill to choreograph the chaos of The Firemen’s Ball. Nothing goes according to plan, and everything is tightly controlled.
Cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek, who migrated to Hollywood like Forman and shot the director’s Hair (1979), Ragtime (1981) and Amadeus (1984), is everywhere with his camera, diving under tables where young men and women are discovering each other and capturing the reactions of the largely amateur cast. The frenetic pace relents only at the end, when all pretense at orderliness has been abandoned, the partygoers have fled, and the distinguished looking chairman in his neat suit patiently waits for his retirement gift – a carved knife that will provide a final jab of cruel humour.
The Firemen’s Ball is populated by professionals as well as real fire officers, whose untutored reactions are as organic to the humour as the absurd situations. These are people who know that they are in a movie that is uncomfortably close to real life in the former Czech Republic in the 1960s, and they inhabit their parts with a combination of gusto and bravado. The casting of non-professionals had some advantages when Forman faced double censorship, first from the government, which was angered by what it considered the belittlement of the working class, and then the movie’s producer. The state organised a screening of The Firemen’s Ball in the town in which it was shot, says Forman in an interview on the Criterion Collection DVD. The men who had appeared in the film stood up to say that it wasn’t as fanciful as the government claimed.
Producer Carlo Ponti despised the film and refused to distribute it, proving that censorship can be economic as well as political. A group of French cineastes rescued the movie from oblivion. The Firemen’s Ball was supposed to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, but that event was cancelled after the May rebellion. The film was screened for three weeks domestically and pulled out after the former Soviet republic invaded Forman’s country in 1968. The year proved advantageous for Hollywood: Forman went into exile and moved to the United States of America, where he continued his quest for cinematic truth through such acclaimed films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Man on the Moon, and the heavily absurdist The People vs Larry Flynt.