Plot Synopsis from criterionco.com
A milestone of the Czech New Wave, Milos Forman’s first color film The Firemen’s Ball (Horí, má panenko) is both a dazzling comedy and a provocative political satire. A hilarious saga of good intentions confounded, the story chronicles a firemen’s ball where nothing goes right—from a beauty pageant whose reluctant participants embarrass the organizers to a lottery from which nearly all the prizes are pilfered. Presumed to be a commentary on the floundering Czech leadership, the film was “banned forever” in Czechoslovakia following the Russian invasion and prompted Forman’s move to America.
The Firemen’s Ball Essay by: J. Hoberman
The last, best, and funniest movie Milos Forman would make in his native Czechoslovakia, The Firemen’s Ball is a deceptively simple miniature. This 73-minute movie, its premise scarcely more than an anecdote, finds an entire universe in the benefit gala staged by a group of inept, officious, mildly corrupt—in short, intensely human—volunteer firefighters.
Forman, whose international reputation as a leading member of the Czech new wave was established with his rueful 1965 comedy Loves of a Blonde, had left Prague for the Krkonose mountain village of Vrchlabí, there to develop a follow-up screenplay with his colleagues Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papousek. “One evening, to amuse ourselves, we went to a real firemen’s ball,” he recalled. “What we saw was such a nightmare that we didn’t stop talking until the next day about it. So we abandoned what we were writing on to start writing this script.”
A Czech-Italian co-production (according to Forman, it was Carlo Ponti’s $65,000 that enabled the movie to be made in color), The Firemen’s Ball was shot in Vrchlabí with an entirely nonprofessional cast. The protagonist is the town itself. Forman has assembled an impressive ensemble of grotesque types and fantastic faces. The movie’s droll naturalism occasionally flirts with cuteness, but its deadpan comedy is darkened by an unwaveringly clear-eyed view of human stupidity and deception.
The ball is a series of small catastrophes, absurd ceremonies, and inane intrigues—these rendered all the more ridiculous by the firemen’s tendency toward self-important official rhetoric and coercive authoritarianism. Just about everything that can go wrong does. Decorations fall from the ceiling. The brass band misses its cues. The lottery prizes are pilfered by those assigned to watch over them. The reluctant participants in a beauty contest run for cover and, in the confusion, a fat middle-aged lady happily crowns herself the winner. A fire breaks out in the middle of the fete—it’s a particularly haunting sequence, as everyone leaves the ball to watch the heroes in action. As the town’s new fire engine gets stuck in a drift, the firemen are reduced to ineffectually shoveling snow on the flames, then return to the hall to find the remaining prizes missing. The movie’s comic acme comes when the firemen dim the lights so that the culprits can replace the purloined goods, then turn them back on too soon—catching one of their own as he attempts to replace a massive head cheese.
“We’ll never live down the disgrace of his putting it back,” one smoke-eater moans, and in the unlikely event that any Czech viewer (or, indeed, anyone else) missed the correspondences between these bossy firefighters and a leading segment of Czech society, Forman ends with a backstage meeting where the firemen squabble among themselves over stolen prizes and, citing “the honor of the brigade,” decide that everyone at the ball is a suspect. (After all, those who didn’t steal could have.) The movie’s final image—the smoldering ruins of an old man’s farmhouse—makes a particularly prescient ending.
Completed in mid-1967, The Firemen’s Ball exemplifies the ironic humanism and sly political allegory characteristic of the Czech New Wave. It also managed to offend everyone from its Italian producer to the Czech head of state to the nation’s volunteer firemen. The movie was shelved for a year; released at the height of the heady political thaw known as Prague Spring, it was playing theaters when the country was invaded by its Warsaw Pact allies in August 1968. An inescapable symbol of Czechoslovakia’s doomed reforms, The Firemen’s Ball had its American premiere a month later, closing the same 1968 New York Film Festival that featured Jan Nemec’s Report on the Party and the Guests, another movie that was initially banned, then released, and would never again be publicly shown in communist Czechoslovakia.Forman, who soon after relocated to the United States, has always maintained that The Firemen’s Ball has no “hidden symbols or double meanings.” The movie is not without a sharp political edge but it is not exactly an allegory. Subsequent viewings transform Forman’s deceptively slight masterpiece into something more mysterious—a sort of bemused documentary meditation on the non-actors who populate the screen. Few evocations of the human comedy have been so bitter and so sweet.
N.Y. TIMES REVIEW By RENATA ADLER Published: September 30, 1968
“The Firemen’s Ball”, is a hilarious shaggy dog story, with the pessimism of the exquisite logic that leads nowhere. The firemen’s ball has been convened for the purpose of awarding an honorary hatchet to a retiring fire chief (Joseph Svet), who is 86. (It would have been better to award it to him when he was 85, before he got cancer, but procrastination is important to any functioning bureaucracy.) The poor man keeps tottering forth to receive his hatchet, but every time the firemen’s band plays, it is for some other part of the ceremony, a beauty contest, a raffle or a real fire, which burns down another old man’s house nearby. (The old man whose house is burning is seated in a chair in the snow to watch. Then, out of concern for his feelings, his neighbors turn his chair around. When they think he might be cold, they back him closer to the flames.)
The movie is full of humor, dense in every detail, which works only on screen and not in prose. Forman’s comedy is special—muted Rabelaisian in its view of human character. (A couple make love under a table from the top of which the trembling raffle prizes are being stolen one by one. When the lights are turned off so that everyone may secretly return what he has stolen, the only man who actually returns a prize, a headcheese, faints with mortification when he is seen by the crowd.) There is verbal satire, too — the retiring chief’s deadpan acceptance speech is a comic gem, even in subtitles. But the timing and involutions of the humor are such that there is escalating laughter, while an awareness of the sadness of things—real fire, monumental pettiness—deepens as well. That a director who sees things so bitterly and clearly can be this funny now may mean that we are in for a comic renaissance after all.
“The Firemen’s Ball,” is universal in the sense that it is rich in characters (perfectly cast and played) and situations that are everywhere. Forty thousand firemen resigned in a huff when the Czechoslovak Government, still under Antonin Novotny, released “The Firemen’s Ball.” Then Forman, in characteristic fashion, parodied a critical interpretation of the film as allegory, and the firemen were consoled. The movie is about mortal stupidity as much as anything—all these people, whose life work is preserving life, failing each other through insensitivity and selfishness. It was bought by two French directors. Truffaut and Berri, when the original producer. Carlo Ponti, wanted changes that the director could not accept. It is just right as it is.
★ Video interview with director Milos Forman
★ A behind-the-scenes look at the transfer process, featuring cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, and comments from Milos Forman
1.61GB | 1:13:54 | 640×480 | avi
Subtitles:English *.srt file