The Firemen’s Ball
Dir: Milos Forman
BANNED is a series of reviews focusing on films that have been censored, boycotted or suppressed.
If a film concerning the bumbling attempts of a group of Czech firemen to stage a gala in honor of a retiring comrade, featuring no nudity, very little profanity and no violence can be banned, then it must be one of the most political subversive films ever made. Well, at least according to the Russian occupiers that infiltrated Czechoslovakia The Firemen’s Ball contained enough dissident ideas to ban it permanently.
Following the success of his Loves of a Blonde (1965), filmmaker Milos Forman, one of the preeminent voices in the Czech New Wave, retired to the Bohemian countryside with a few colleagues to figure out where to go next. But writer’s block plagued Forman and friends, so one night, in the remote village of Vrchlabi, they attended a firemen’s ball to relax and perhaps look for fresh ideas for the next script.
“What we saw was such a nightmare that we didn’t stop talking until the next day about it,” Forman, who would go on to direct film such as Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest said. “So we abandoned what we were writing on to start writing this script.” Forman asked the local firemen from Vrchlabi to star in the film and his next project was born.
The premise was simple enough: to celebrate the career of the retiring chairman of the brigade, the local firemen would host a ball to fete his venerable age. But nothing will go right for this bungling group who, rather than look for utilitarian solutions, instead rely on totalitarian bluster and party line kowtowing. Instead of a successful gala, what occurs is a series of minor catastrophes. People fall down drunk, fuck under tables, goods from a raffle are pilfered (some by the wife of a fireman) and a beauty contest goes horribly awry after the contestants refuse to take the stage. Even when an actual fire breaks out, the firemen are unable to extract their fire engine from a snow bank and resort to tossing snow onto the out of control blaze.
At first glance, The Firemen’s Ball is a simple physical comedy on the level of a Jim Carrey farce. But taken on a deeper level, it can be seen as a swipe at the mindless beast of Communism, where the group’s welfare is put before the individual, at least according to the rhetoric spewed by the members of the brigade. Following World War II, corruption was rampant in Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party. With the scarcity of common staples such as bread and alcohol, it became obvious that the Party’s higher ups were absconding away with the goods for themselves. When one fireman berates his wife for taking headcheese from the raffle table, she replies that his problem is he’s “too stupid to steal.”
According to Forman, the film had no “hidden symbols or double meanings,” yet it is clear that The Firemen’s Ball takes aim at the hypocrisy of the ruling class. As the film nears its end, the firemen dim the lights in the hall and entreaty the thieves to return the missing goods. When the lights come up prematurely, all that is seen is the honest fireman trying to return the headcheese taken by his wife. “We’ll never live down the disgrace of his putting it back,” one of the firemen cries at an impromptu powwow following the revelation. Yet the men reason away any logic, ending with the resolution that everyone and anyone is suspect for theft because if people didn’t steal, they very well could have, thus keeping “the honor of the brigade intact.”
When Carlo Ponti, the producer who financed the $65,000 film saw the final cut, he stormed out of the screening and never spoke to Forman again. As it seemed Forman would be responsible for the $65,000 price tag, the departure of Ponti meant big trouble. Luckily, French directors Francois Truffaut and Claude Berri had screened the film and purchased it. Released during a period known as Prague Spring, a period of liberalization, The Firemen’s Ball was running in cinemas when the Soviets invaded the country in 1968. Once the Soviets assumed control, the film was banned and never shown again in Communist Czechoslovakia. But since Truffaut and Berri owned the film, the Soviets had to turn it over to them. It would close out the 1968 New York Film Festival.
Beyond its storied history, The Firemen’s Ball is a humanist comedy about blind faith in order and the chaos that lurks just outside every door. It runs a little over an hour and features priceless performances from Forman’s nonprofessional cast. Just like Federico Fellini’s best films, Forman populates Firemen’s with a slew of bizarre and interesting characters. Though his firemen are incompetent and more or less self-serving and corrupt, it is impossible not to feel for their human shortcomings. In the microcosm of the ball, there are no bad intentions, just ideas of grandeur that fall sweetly short.
by David Harris