The Fireman’s Ball

English Title: The Fireman’s Ball

Original Title: Hoří má, panenko

Country of Origin: Czech Republic

Studio: Filmové Studio Barrandov

Director: Miloš Forman

Producer(s): Carlo Ponti , Rudolf Hájek

Screenplay: Ivan Passer, Jaroslav Papoušek, Miloš Forman

Cinematographer: Miroslav Ondříček

Art Director: Karel Černý

Editor: Miroslav Hájek

Runtime: 71 minutes

Genre: Comedy/Drama

Language: Czech

Starring/Cast: František Debelka, Stanislav Holubec, Josef Šebánek, Josef Kolb, Jan Vostrčil

Year: 1967

Volume: East European

Synopsis:

In a tiny town in the mountains above Bohemia, the local fire department decides to throw a ball and beauty pageant in honour of an elderly colleague. The ball is part lottery, for which every attendee has purchased a ticket, and part celebration of the retiring fire chief’s life. However, the lottery prizes keep being stolen from the table on which they are kept, and problems arise over the beauty queens, who have to be coerced into taking part and into auditioning, and when the time comes many of them boycott the stage. Further complications arise when a fire breaks out in a neighbouring building and the lottery thief has to be unmasked.   


Critique:

A vanguard of the Czech New Wave movement, Miloš Forman impressed international audiences with his 1965 film Lásky jedné plavovlásky/Loves of a Blonde (1965). The first Czech film to be selected for an Academy Award nomination, it was almost impossible to follow, and after being frustrated in Prague, Forman left for the mountains and stumbled into his next picture, which was inspired by a party thrown by the local fire department. The director and his company took this incident and wrote a satire of the communist regime, slyly using the fireman’s ball as an allegorical gathering characterized by an inept authority and beaurocracy.

 

Hoří má, panenko/The Fireman’s Ball is a film of juxtapositions; the inevitable clashes between the young generations and the old, piousness and sexuality, honesty and thievery, pomp and circumstance and bumbling ineptitude, subtlety and slapstick, heartbreak and humour, even the cold of winter in Czechoslovakia in 1967 with the blazing fire at the climax of the film. Stylistically, the film occupies a liminal position between the fantasy of other Czech New Wave classics like Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky/Daisies (1966) and Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie a Týden Divů/Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and the more observational, documentary-inflected narratives of Forman’s earlier work. This subversion of Forman’s heretofore New Wave style is even more pronounced in the director’s ideology than his visual style, although the wry humour, visual puns and heartfelt poignancy benefit from discontinuity editing and the offbeat, unexpected angles of Miroslav Ondříček’s camerawork.

 

 These two elements work particularly well during the climactic, chaotic scene in which the brigade announces the reluctant winners of the beauty pageant and none come forward. The sumptuous shots of the crowd are intercut with close-ups of faces, the backs of heads, bored teenagers scratching their noses. This typically New Wave, Forman-esque moment, with its documentary feel that records a silence, a non-event, contrasts hilariously with the nationalistic grandiosity of the music played by the band. Several of the beauty queens march toward the stage.  One comes forward, giggles, and runs away. The retiring honouree tries to march up for his award and is stopped several times by different members of the brigade. No one knows what to do or when to do it. The empty ceremony of what they are trying to achieve is cast into sharp relief when the queens make a break for the bathroom and all hell breaks loose on the dance floor. The boys grab the girls, men and women of all ages are running, dancing, falling, and sliding across the floor. Cleverly, Forman does not show the faces of the partygoers here, or at least that is not all he shows, choosing instead to film their legs and feet, vertiginous angles catching the young and old flailing this way and that. Again, Forman demonstrates the marked difference between the rigidity and militaristic marching of the Communist Party with the gaiety, the revelry, the headiness and sometimes even the panic of the small town men and women, the real faces and bodies of Czechoslovakia.

 

There are also quiet moments in this quintessential village comedy, as well as moments with an incredible streak of humour that walk a tight-rope between over-the-top embarrassment and a tender subtlety. The censors did not like some of the sharp comedy, such as the moment when the fire marshal’s wife is revealed as a thief, but could not find a reason to remove it, so the joke stayed in the film. And rightly so, as it is this humour, paired with a kind of desperation and darkness, that characterizes not only this film but much of Forman’s work. In a 2009 interview he states that ‘the resilience of the Czech people demonstrated itself in humour. That was the only way the Czech people could fight the misery, to laugh at it. I guess I developed, or understood, the power of humour in those tragic times. When for the people, it was the only weapon to fight their misery. I’m sure that formed my look at life’ (Dollar 2009: 1). After The Fireman’s Ball was released and subsequently banned following the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, Forman moved to America and began a new phase of his career. But even above the Oscar winners One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984) that he directed in his adopted country, he should always be remembered as the man who brought us the story of the big fire just beyond Bohemia.

Author of this review: Emily Caulfield