This week Not In The English Language takes a look at Milos Forman’s groundbreaking early career highlight, The Firemen’s Ball.
The Firemen’s Ball charts the events of the eponymous annual event in the firefighter calendar. Based on real events, as witnessed by Forman himself, the film was presumed to be political allegory, yet Forman has always denied these charges. As a result the film was “banned forever” in his native Czechoslovakia.
The Firemen’s Ball tells the story of an evening in a town hall in a small Czechoslovakian town as the volunteer firefighter department comes together to hold their annual celebration. Over the course of the night a beauty contest is held, a flawed lottery takes place, and the life of the cancer-ridden chairman of the department is celebrated. With hilarious consequences.
As the film makes its way to its obligatory fiery finale the ensuing events act as little more than a channel through which to portray an escalating series of comedy situations, with a level of sentiment that one might not expect based on the premise of the piece.
Consisting of several anecdotes interconnected over a slim duration of just 70 minutes or so The Firemen’s Ball, with its brief running time and situation-based comedy, reminds one of a traditional television sitcom at times. Alas the beautiful photography, rich characterisation and pertinent dramatisation help a great deal to separate the film from such fare. The actual comedy has aged surprisingly well, in spite of the age that has passed since production, with much of it fairly universal (a minor issue with imported comedy, especially of a vintage-era is that the humour is occasionally lost in translation).
The Czechoslovak New Wave came out of the Prague Film & Television School in the early 1960’s with Stefan Uher’s The Sun In The Net often charged with being the movement’s first production. Due to the fraught political environment of Czechoslovakia at the time it wasn’t until the late 1960’s that many of the works saw international distribution. Forman’s work, alongside that of his contemporary V?ra Chytilová, did make it out from behind the iron curtain, garnering prestige and awards at film festivals all across Europe, with The Firemen’s Ball acting as the ultimate crescendo to this period of his career.
It’s clear at times why it was believed that The Firemen’s Ball did indeed contain a political message, as some of the humour could easily be interpreted in such a manner. For example the way that the spectator-like attitude of the masses gathered outside of the burning house is presented is highly cynical, and could be seen as an approach to tackling the contextual political situation in Czechoslovakia in 1967.
Further to this, the way in which the gathered masses applaud themselves upon being thanked for giving the man raffle tickets for the practically non-existent tombola also felt satirical in tone. As a result I’m not sure whether or not I believe Forman in his claims that the film doesn’t contain any “hidden symbols or double meanings”, especially when one factors in the work that followed The Firemen’s Ball.
The Fireman’s Ball would be Forman’s final production in his home country, the controversy of the work, coupled with the success of the film abroad leading him to the USA. His first American film, the Buck Henry starring Taking Off would go on to win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, cementing Forman’s standing as one of the key cinematic purveyors of the idiosyncratic.
Both Taking Off and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest feature heavy anarchic streaks in their characterisation, and are both commentaries on politics and/or society in general, so with hindsight its perfectly comprehensible as to why the authorities might have considered The Firemen’s Ball to be a work that would heavily contravene the heavily controlled agenda of the post-Nazism, Communist Czechoslovakia of 1967.
The Firemen’s Ball was a great success outside of its native land though, and the favourite to take the Palme d’or at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, prior to the cancellation of the event due to the ongoing political demonstrations across France at the time. In spite of this unfortunate turn of events, Forman’s film was still noticed, with its reputation enough to transport him to the US, where The Firemen’s Ball was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Adam Batty is the Editor of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, and can be found on Twitter.