The Fireman’s Ball (1967) was the last film that Milos Forman made in Czechoslovakia, before he left for the West, and a distinguished Hollywood career. It was shown for a few weeks in Czechoslovakia in 1968, but banned as “anti-Party” when the Soviets invaded and crushed the “Prague Spring” reform movement.
The Fireman’s Ball is slyly understated and satirical; it makes no direct political statement, but works clearly as a political allegory. It’s the story — as the title indicates — of a ball (together with beauty pageant and raffle) put on by the volunteer firemen’s unit of a small provincial town in Bohemia. The whole film is a nearly plotless display of buffoonery, corruption, and pomposity. The sheer organizational incompetence of the old men who make up the firefighters’ unit, and who organize the ball — the Central Committee, as it were — is matched only by their petty dishonesty and their attachment to the (supposed) dignity of their uniforms and office.
The film takes place mostly during the course of a single evening, that of the ball. Everything possible goes wrong: all the raffle gifts are stolen (evidently by the firemen themselves), the beauty pageant never takes place (the young women who are the contestants, embarrassed and worn out, hide in the bathroom instead of taking their places on stage), the senile former leader of the unit never gets his (belated) retirement present (though he frequently toddles up to the stage, always at precisely the wrong moment, to receive it), and the firemen are unable even to put out the nearby fire that breaks out in the course of the evening (their truck gets stuck in the snow, and they are reduced to ineffectually shoveling snow onto the fire, while a large crowd drinks beer as they watch the spectacle).
My description makes the movie sound like a straight-up, knockabout farce. But one of the noteworthy things about The Fireman’s Ball is the way it resists such a categorization. Its touch is (deliberately) too light for physical comedy. The cast of non-actors doesn’t go for big laughs, but instead plays everything fairly naturalistically. Even when a young couple are groping each other under a table, while the fireman sitting at the table tries to stop them without calling attention to what’s happening, we get a sense of slightly pained befuddlement rather than outright slapstick.
Throughout the film, pointless arguments go on at almost excruciating length, without ever reaching a moment of open conflict, let alone resolution. Everyone remains polite throughout, respecting the code of “saving the appearances,” no matter how inane the circumstances. A hypocritical veneer of civility is always maintained, even when the firemen are issuing pompous orders, and the people of the crowd are finding ways to flout them. Throughout it all, the band continuously plays its waltzes, and the crush of people in the ballroom fills the screen. All this, plus a reliance mostly on medium shots, makes for a busy, clotted, exhausting mise en scene: just as there is never a sense of climax, there is also never one of release or relaxation. I’m inclined to say that this is an instance of form matching content: the pace of the film, its indirections, its failure or refusal to cohere even into a purely negative meaning, reproduces the feeling of what (I imagine) it was like to live in the bureaucratic “socialist” society of the time (though, of course, the film makes the situation entertaining, in a way that actually living there and then would not have been).
The closest thing to a climax in this deliberately anticlimactic films comes when one of the firemen is exposed to the crowd trying to return one of the items he had stolen (an enormous cheese), and faints from the humiliation of being thus discovered. The other firemen strongly disapprove of his gesture; the leader of the group declares indignantly that he would never let any impulse towards honesty let the dignity of the organization be called into doubt. In an interview included as one of the extras on the DVD, Forman says that this was the line that incurred the wrath of Antonin Novotny, the Communist Party boss of Czechoslovakia at the time. (The Prague Spring began when Novotny was deposed). What this demonstrates, I think, is less the violence and absolute control of the post-Stalinist system than its complete (and absolutely demoralizing) cynicism. That is to say, it’s not totalitarianism (understood as a system in which every aspect of life is completely regulated and controlled by the State and the Party, whose ruthlessness would belie the underlying ideals that they claim to respect), but rather a generalized state of venality, pettiness, and favoritism: a condition that (in the words of Kafka, the greatest Czech author, though one who predated both Fascism and Communism) “turns lying into a universal principle.” Forman’s achievement is to create an aesthetic rendition of this condition, without offering an apologia for it, but also without even the slightest hint of heavy-handed moralizing.