The Firemen's Ball is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.
I want to praise The Firemen’s Ball (1967) for things it’s not often praised for. All too often it gets trapped in its historical context, which is understandable. It was the first colour production of the prominent member of the Czech New Wave and already well established director Miloš Forman. A few months after the film’s completion, Soviet troops marched in, cracked down on the remaining bits of freedom, and the film was not just banned but “banned forever”. It would be the last film Forman made in Czechoslovakia. Following the ban, Forman fled to the US, where he would eventually make an illustrious career with films including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984).
It is inevitable that this fateful story and the historical forces around it have overtaken the film’s identity. The Firemen’s Ball has become a symbol of dissident filmmaking, and its merit has been reduced to its political stance.
This is a shame, because political commentary is only one aspect of the film and, for my money, the least intriguing one. Or rather, the least difficult one to grasp and appreciate. What I find most fascinating about it is the way Forman chooses to communicate his frustrations and the stylistically heightened world that he creates.
The late great Roger Ebert, in his review of The Firemen's Ball, suggests that the film belongs to the ‘slice of life’ tradition of Eastern European cinema and describes it as “a series of vignettes that have the savor of real life, perhaps because Forman cast all local people - no professional actors - in his roles”.
Indeed, apart from a few leads and Forman regulars, most of the film’s cast are non-professionals. Moreover, these non-professionals were participants in the real-life firemen’s ball that inspired the film. Forman and his screenwriter Jaroslav Papoušek stumbled across the event in the provincial town of Vrchlabí whilst on sabbatical, and it made a huge impression on them. They spent six weeks writing the script in Vrchlabí, intermittently playing cards and drinking beer with the locals, and later invited them to participate in the filming.
Many of the film’s plot points are directly inspired by happenings at the actual ball, including an ill-fated raffle, one mess of a beauty pageant and a building that burns down just across the road. But despite its origin in real events, the world Forman creates has about as much ‘savor of real life’ as a Wes Anderson movie. While Forman’s style here is completely different from Anderson’s, both are equally conspicuous in their artificiality. And the fact that most of the people in the frame are non-professionals makes the director’s achievement of stylistic consistency all the more remarkable.
The world of the movie is not just absurd in the way that decisions and policies of short-sighted political systems tend to be, but it is in fact absurdist. And in that sense it is part of a much larger tradition that is not limited to the countries of the Eastern Bloc. Socialism was undoubtedly fertile soil for absurdism, but no more than Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy was for the works of Franz Kafka or bourgeois morality for the works of Luis Buñuel.
The reality that Forman is satirising is magnified to the point of allegory and his heightening of the drab socialist everyday turns it into its own unique aesthetic. By avoiding the literal representation of the world around him and the ‘slice of life’ tradition of movie-making (that Ebert mistakenly perceives) Forman brings his film closer to universal human experiences. Its characters become symbols of human weakness, incoherence and general cluelessness. Beyond a satire on the socialist regime, it becomes a satire on the absurdity of social conventions and the human insistence on putting people and everything else into inflexible categories.
In one of my favourite scenes the people at the ball organise a collection to help an old man whose nearby house has just been destroyed by fire. But what people are donating (in all earnestness) are their raffle tickets. The absurdity of the old man being pompously presented with a tray of colourful pieces of paper is intensified by our knowledge that all the raffle prizes have been stolen. Would this not make a wonderful metaphor for the capitalist system exposed by the recent financial crisis? Or of the earnest clicktivism we all regularly encounter and participate in on social media? In the classic absurdist tradition this scene signifies the futility and emptiness of all effort.
The incoherence of human society is deftly captured by Forman’s loyal DP Miroslav Ondříček (who would go on to shoot much of the director’s Hollywood oeuvre as well). The faux-documentary gaze he employs in some of the establishing crowd scenes is also used in Forman’s previous films, including Loves of a Blonde (1965) and Black Peter (1964), but to a slightly different effect. Here it emphasises how extremely crowded the space of the ball is: the frame is often entirely sardine-packed with human figures, which the superb impressionistic editing makes into a wonderfully affecting mess of arms, legs, heads and shoulders. You can almost smell the sweat and feel the stuffiness of the room.
At the heart of the movie are the members of firemen committee, who are in charge of ensuring that all the fun at the ball goes according to plan. But they are not - as one might expect from angry political satire - cold, cruel, and stupid grey suits. They are funny, simple and endearing, like naive art drawings. They do not posses any depth, any passions or desires. Their decisions are not driven by their individuality, but by their collective consciousness. And in their simplicity they are confused and helpless when confronted with expressions of non-conformity.
What’s particularly interesting is that the non-conformity the committee members are faced with comes not from rock’n’roll youth or passionate dissidents, but from the befuddled young women they are trying to select for the beauty pageant. The women’s own cartoonishly simple cluelessness is marvellously played to comic effect by the non-professional actors, and chaos ensues.
In the film’s world, this chaos is not a result of a clash of political wills, but of the impossibility of mutual understanding. This fundamental failure of communication is part of the absurdity of human existence that Forman depicts, reminiscent in a way of the works of Beckett or Ionesco.
But Forman retains enough humanity to mix the absurdism with sorrow: there is a scene of a crowd watching a burning building, and as so often in movies this functions as a moment of collective reflection and sadness. The firemen’s futile attempts to put out the fire are watched with resignation by the locals. This moment of profound existential melancholy is just one of the reasons The Firemen’s Ball deserves consideration beyond its (undoubtedly sharp) critique of the socialist state.