Director: Miloš Forman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Miloš Forman died this weekend. The much-honored, much-loved director won international acclaim as a filmmaker after he took up residence in the United States, where he had a long run of critical and commercial successes—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Amadeus (1984), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), and my personal favorite, Ragtime (1981). It is in his native country of Czechoslovakia, however, where he cut his cinematic teeth as part of the anarchic-minded Czech New Wave, which railed however they could against the oppressive communist regime imposed on the country by the Soviet Union.
The Firemen’s Ball was the last film, and the only color film, Forman made in Czechoslovakia. The warm reception of his second full-length feature, The Loves of a Blonde (1965), helped convince Italian producer Carlo Ponti to provide the financing that made color shooting possible. Forman and his creative partners, Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papousek, holed up in a small Czech town to concentrate on writing the screenplay. After days of producing one bad scenario after another, the men decided to relax their minds at a firemen’s ball being held in the town that weekend. Afterward, the ball was all they could talk about. Thus, The Firemen’s Ball was inevitable, and they were able to enlist many of the actual firemen and people in the town to appear in the movie.
When Ponti saw the film, he hated it so much that he exercised his right under his contract with the Czechoslovakian government to have his $65,000 investment returned. Forman faced 10 years in prison if he could not pay the government back; fortunately, he was able to show the film to French directors Claude Berri and Francois Truffaut, and they paid his debt. Nonetheless, the government banned the film; it was unbanned for a few months in 1968 when liberal-minded Czech Communist Party First Secretary Alexander Dubček came to power. When the Soviet Union reasserted its control over Czechoslovakia and removed Dubček, the film was rebanned forever from its native screens—how absurdly Czech!
What was it about this film that Ponti and even the more relaxed Communist government of the 1960s so despised? It made fun of the proletariat! While there’s no question that the Czech people come in for some ribbing—donating useless raffle tickets for odd prizes that are slowly disappearing from a “guarded” table to a man who has just lost his home in a fire—the disorganized system of committee rule by the obedient functionaries of communism are the main targets. Their every attempt to perform anything official, from choosing beauty pageant contestants by viewing their legs, their faces, and their bosom separately like the blind men describing an elephant, to actually fighting a fire, make for a humorously infuriating experience.
It’s not hard to see how the board of the firemen’s association is a stand-in for the Politburo that can’t bring order to chaos or basic goods and services to the people. Along with the partygoers, we watch “Granddad’s” home blacken and burn because the fire truck is stuck in the snow. The distraught homeowner is made to sit with his back to the fire so he won’t see his home destroyed. Meanwhile, the capitalist ballroom owner sets up a table from which to continue to sell drinks and walks through the crowd watching the fire to collect their bar tabs.
The most damning moment comes when one of the firemen is caught returning one of the prizes, a wheel of headcheese his wife stole, after the committee has asked that the prizes be returned to the table under cover of darkness. In private, the committee members are fuming. “If you were in the same situation, you would have returned it, too, because you’re honest,” the embarrassed fireman pleads. The response is classic: “The good name of the fire brigade means more to me than any honesty, you pighead!”
I am perhaps most intrigued by the 86-year-old former chairman of the firemen’s association who is to receive an award—a miniature, engraved axe—for his dedicated service over the years. It is to be presented by the winner of an impromptu beauty contest that, due to its runaway contestants, never takes place. The old man starts a straight, dignified walk toward the stage as the first contestant is called. He must be called back. He sits. He waits patiently as one disaster after another befalls the committee and the ball. At the very end, he alone remains in the trash-strewn ballroom. The committee hastily retrieves the box containing the award and decides to present it themselves. The old man moves forward, takes the box, and recites his carefully prepared and somewhat lengthy speech. When he opens the box, he finds the axe has been pilfered, too.
This old man is something of an enigma to me. He’s certainly the loyal Communist who comes up empty-handed in the end because of the of the system’s misshapen supply-demand curve. He’s also a leader blind to everything but his own role, the perfect bureaucrat in a broken chain, as well as a man (system) who is dying of cancer who has not been told he is ill. Finally, of course, he is an ordinary citizen who is degraded by the petty thievery of an item that can mean nothing to anyone else. This theft is both humorous—a raspberry in the face of the leadership—and a sad way for a fellow human being to be treated. Despite its high comedy, it’s no wonder the film has been called highly pessimistic.
The contemporary film movements from former Soviet Bloc countries—particularly Romania and Bosnia—identify with their traumas and open their veins. The Firemen’s Ball, though pessimistic, reflects the Czech sensibility characterized by an appreciation for the absurd, a howl of laughter in the face of danger. It is perhaps the height of Czech irony that Forman, like the former chairman, died at the age of 86—fortunately, in full knowledge that his contributions to society will be enjoyed and remembered for many years to come.