There are two ways to approach and discuss Miloš Forman’s 1967 comedy The Firemen’s Ball. The first is to analyse the film from a scholarly viewpoint; to delve into its satirical stance on East European Communism at the time and the inherent corruption that prevailed. The second would be to simply enjoy the film for its sense of exuberance and energy. As much as any film can be, The Firemen’s Ball is the kind of bawdy comedy that so often misses the mark entirely, and yet in Forman’s hands comes together perfectly as the at-times seemingly random parts are woven together with a master’s precision.
There is no doubt that in 1967 Forman had a point to make. As a key figure in the Czech New Wave movement, his dissatisfaction with the communist regime was clear in his films. In 1967 this dissatisfaction led to the production of The Firemen’s Ball, which unabashedly poked fun at the system through its depiction of well-laid plans collapsing, a central leading group made up of incompetent men, and the farce that inevitably follows. This led to the film being banned in Czechoslovakia for ever and resulted in Forman’s exile in the US.
While the political imagery is impossible to ignore, analysing too closely could lead to the viewer ignoring the fun Forman seemed to be having with his subject matter. When a group of amateur firemen host a ball to celebrate the career of one of their senior members, everything that could go wrong does. Beside the slowly diminishing raffle prizes, apparently stolen by the guests, and the failure to deal with a house fire which occurs on the same night is the film’s gloriously uncomfortable centrepiece. In order to award the guest of honour with a “memento”, the hapless organising committee hastily convene a beauty pageant, the idea being the most beautiful girl will carry out the presentation. Never in the history of cinema has a less appropriate beauty line-up been assembled, and Forman can barely contain his glee at the slapstick events that follow, while still finding time to poke fun at authority.
Forman will predominantly be remembered for the films he made in the US following his exile. With the number of Oscars rightly awarded to his two most renowned films, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, including Best Director and Best Picture for both, his early films have perhaps received less attention than they deserve. Look closely at The Firemen’s Ball and you can see the same traits throughout. The naturalistic, exuberant performances that rail against authority and the semi-tragic leads are notable in many of Forman’s works. Rarely though did the comedy blend so perfectly with these tropes as it did in The Firemen’s Ball, and as such this is a film that deserves a new audience.
Special Features: Archive interviews / Featurette
FIREMEN’S BALL / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: MILOS FORMAN / SCREENPLAY: MILOS FORMAN, JAROSLAV PAPOUSEK, IVAN PASSER / STARRING: JAN VOSTRCIL, JOSEF SEBANEK, JOSEF VALNOHA, FRANTISEK DEBELKA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW