"Miss, we are from the entertainment committee, and we came to ask you whether or not you would participate in a beauty contest."—Lecherous fireman surrounding a drunk, homely girl
In a little town in Czechoslovakia, a group of town elders, leaders of the local fire brigade, pass around a ceremonial fire ax, a gift for their retiring chairman. Plans are ready for that evening's fete. But somebody has already stolen the cake, the decorative banner is on fire, and things are quickly falling apart. And the guests have not even arrived yet.
It was almost a thaw in the Cold War. For a few years during the 1960s, Communist Czechoslovakia flirted with freedom. The result was known as the Prague Spring, and it flourished just long enough for the Soviet tanks to roll over it in 1968. One of the artists who found his muse during this short renaissance was Milos Forman, whose penchant for satire grew the tremendous success of Loves of a Blonde. But while Forman's later English language films would focus more openly on the charismatic outsider—R. P. McMurphy, George Berger, Larry Flynt—his strategy in his Czech films, made under the watchful eye of the censors (who were still not too fond of dissent) needed to be more covert.
In The Firemen's Ball, the insiders manage to talk themselves into a corner. In one telling scene, a middle-aged hausfrau pummels a fireman when he finds a stolen headcheese in her purse. "Everyone is stealing here," she berates, "and you only watch, you old honest idiot." And she slips off with her stolen goods—while he only helplessly watches. Forman lets the events speak for themselves, using ambient sound (the monaural mix has a documentary feel), handheld cameras, and improvisation from a cast of non-professionals to give the film a loose, almost vérité quality. Criterion's DVD release is so clean it might have been photographed yesterday, and Forman's satire speaks to any pompous and incompetent authority.
In a fourteen-minute interview with Forman, the director admits that the film is indeed a satire on the Communist regime (something he denied when under pressure in 1967) and shows a soft spot for what he calls one of his "molested" films. He contrasts the ideological oppression of Communist Czechoslovakia, where "you are at the mercy of the tastes of one or two idiots," to the commercial pressures on his more recent films (where I suppose a director might be at the mercy of an idiotic studio). Forman carries over his comments to a short (five minute) featurette about Criterion's remastering process, joined by cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek.
While a commentary track for the film would have certainly been welcome, and for a film that runs a brisk 73 minutes Forman could have certainly found enough to say, it is not difficult to figure out what the message is here. Consider the poor fire brigade's attempts to make the party entertaining for everyone. In a hilariously droll sequence, they try to run a beauty contest (not that any of them know what to do), during which the band stops for a beer break right in the middle, the addled old chairman keeps trying to wander on stage, and the female contestants have to be forcibly carried up to participate.
But the telling moment comes when a fire breaks out nearby, and all the guests run out on their bar tabs. The party moves out into the snow by the light of the burning house, while the fire brigade impotently shovels snow on the conflagration. Milos Forman focuses on the pensive faces in the crowd, and we wonder what he might be saying about a Czech people watching its culture go up in flames while incompetent bureaucrats bumble around.
Forman himself would not stay long to find out. Sensing the impending collapse, he fled the Prague Spring for warmer climes in the United States.
The Firemen's Ball may seem like a dated satire, mocking a ship of state now well sunk. But bureaucratic incompetence will likely always be with us, and the tale Forman tells is oblique enough that its mockery of authority can apply to any group of feeble-minded middle-aged men who think they can organize a chaotic society, and find their sometimes good intentions at odds with their baser instincts. Criterion skimps a bit on the extra features here, but the movie is funny enough to hold up on its own.
The court dismisses any pending charges against Milos Forman and company from the prior political administration. Case dismissed.
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• Interview with Milos Forman
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