The last, best, and funniest movie Milos Forman would make in his native Czechoslovakia, The Firemen’s Ball is a deceptively simple miniature. This 73-minute movie, its premise scarcely more than an anecdote, finds an entire universe in the benefit gala staged by a group of inept, officious, mildly corrupt—in short, intensely human—volunteer firefighters.
Forman, whose international reputation as a leading member of the Czech new wave was established with his rueful 1965 comedy Loves of a Blonde, had left Prague for the Krkonose mountain village of Vrchlabí, there to develop a follow-up screenplay with his colleagues Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papousek. “One evening, to amuse ourselves, we went to a real firemen’s ball,” he recalled. “What we saw was such a nightmare that we didn’t stop talking until the next day about it. So we abandoned what we were writing on to start writing this script.”
A Czech-Italian co-production (according to Forman, it was Carlo Ponti’s $65,000 that enabled the movie to be made in color), The Firemen’s Ball was shot in Vrchlabí with an entirely nonprofessional cast. The protagonist is the town itself. Forman has assembled an impressive ensemble of grotesque types and fantastic faces. The movie’s droll naturalism occasionally flirts with cuteness, but its deadpan comedy is darkened by an unwaveringly clear-eyed view of human stupidity and deception.
The ball is a series of small catastrophes, absurd ceremonies, and inane intrigues—these rendered all the more ridiculous by the firemen’s tendency toward self-important official rhetoric and coercive authoritarianism. Just about everything that can go wrong does. Decorations fall from the ceiling. The brass band misses its cues. The lottery prizes are pilfered by those assigned to watch over them. The reluctant participants in a beauty contest run for cover and, in the confusion, a fat middle-aged lady happily crowns herself the winner. A fire breaks out in the middle of the fete—it’s a particularly haunting sequence, as everyone leaves the ball to watch the heroes in action. As the town’s new fire engine gets stuck in a drift, the firemen are reduced to ineffectually shoveling snow on the flames, then return to the hall to find the remaining prizes missing. The movie’s comic acme comes when the firemen dim the lights so that the culprits can replace the purloined goods, then turn them back on too soon—catching one of their own as he attempts to replace a massive head cheese.
“We’ll never live down the disgrace of his putting it back,” one smoke-eater moans, and in the unlikely event that any Czech viewer (or, indeed, anyone else) missed the correspondences between these bossy firefighters and a leading segment of Czech society, Forman ends with a backstage meeting where the firemen squabble among themselves over stolen prizes and, citing “the honor of the brigade,” decide that everyone at the ball is a suspect. (After all, those who didn’t steal could have.) The movie’s final image—the smoldering ruins of an old man’s farmhouse—makes a particularly prescient ending.
Completed in mid-1967, The Firemen’s Ball exemplifies the ironic humanism and sly political allegory characteristic of the Czech New Wave. It also managed to offend everyone from its Italian producer to the Czech head of state to the nation’s volunteer firemen. The movie was shelved for a year; released at the height of the heady political thaw known as Prague Spring, it was playing theaters when the country was invaded by its Warsaw Pact allies in August 1968. An inescapable symbol of Czechoslovakia’s doomed reforms, The Firemen’s Ball had its American premiere a month later, closing the same 1968 New York Film Festival that featured Jan Nemec’s Report on the Party and the Guests, another movie that was initially banned, then released, and would never again be publicly shown in communist Czechoslovakia.
Forman, who soon after relocated to the United States, has always maintained that The Firemen’s Ball has no “hidden symbols or double meanings.” The movie is not without a sharp political edge but it is not exactly an allegory. Subsequent viewings transform Forman’s deceptively slight masterpiece into something more mysterious—a sort of bemused documentary meditation on the non-actors who populate the screen. Few evocations of the human comedy have been so bitter and so sweet.
J. Hoberman is the senior film critic for the Village Voice. His latest book is The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism (Temple University Press).