The Firemen’s Ball (1967)

Milos Forman’s bizarre political comedy The Firemen’s Ball is as well-known for the controversy surrounding its release in 1967 as it is for its content. But the content shouldn’t be ignored—The Firemen’s Ball is a brilliant film, its understated comedy inherent in the events as a group of firemen throw a ball in their small town, where they plan to award their former chairman a ceremonial axe.

The Firemen’s Ball is about bureaucracy run amok, as the governing committee are unable to make such simple choices as what girls to put in a beauty contest or how to run a lottery without resorting to roundabout discussions and payola from concerned mothers, fathers, and boyfriends. As “the people” get drunker and rowdier, the committee breaks down—those tasked with guarding the lottery watch as more items disappear, while the discussions over who is to present what and when comes nearer to fisticuffs. The whole thing culminates in a ridiculous attempt at having a beauty contest in which all the contestants refuse to go onstage.

This is absurdism at its finest. The film is shot through with the darkest of Czech humor—everyone, from the committee to the people to the landscape itself is the butt of a joke, representative of petty rivalries, drunken idiocy, and smug leadership that cannot lead. Forman’s roaming camera captures faces young and old as they slowly devolve into drunkenness and competition, the disgust of young women for the group of old men trying to figure out how to judge their beauty, the palpable sense of the absurd. While the film never explicitly attacks the Communist party, it is self-evidently a condemnation of the bureaucracy, corruption, and squabbling within Czechoslovakia at the time.

The Firemen’s Ball plays like a documentary, with the camera catching the apparently unguarded moments of the crowd. Many of the actors are non-professional (most of the firemen are played by actual firemen from the town), and the humor of the film lies in even its extremity being believable—none of the slapstick elements are overplayed or come off as merely comic vignettes. As the ball breaks down into absurdity and chaos (including an actual fire), the underlying commentary lies in the ineptitude of the firemen to accomplish even the smallest tasks. The fact that it doesn’t purport to be a pure allegory (of Communism, of Czechoslovakia) means that the film extends itself to universality—it encompasses a petit bourgeois smugness and bureaucratic nonsense that would say as much about the United States or Soviet Russia as it does about Czechoslovakia.

After the release of The Firemen’s Ball, Forman left Czechoslovakia to discuss financing the film, and the Soviets invaded. The film was “banned forever,” Forman chose to remain outside the country, and The Firemen’s Ball was eventually nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. With a scant running time of barely more than an hour, it stands up as one of the finest, funniest political allegories ever filmed and a seminal event in the Czech New Wave.

The Firemen’s Ball is available to stream on FilmStruck.

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