July 4, 2013 by abbyo
In a weird way, writing about the Czech New Wave is very appropriate for the Fourth of July. I know it’s a massive cliché, but sometimes you never quite understand the freedoms you have until you’re exposed to a culture that doesn’t have them. If Milos Forman’s “The Firemen’s Ball” is anything to go by, life in Czechoslovakia during the soviet years was bizarre, frustrating and (to reference Forman’s countryman) truly Kafkaesque. It definitely struck a nerve with the party’s top brass. It was “banned forever” in Czechoslovakia, and the communist party’s reaction to the film prompted Forman’s move to the U.S.
“The Firemen’s Ball” was Forman’s follow up to the immensely successful “Loves of a Blonde.” It’s an absurd satirical comedy set in an unnamed town, where a group of volunteer firemen are organizing their annual fundraising ball and raffle. Absolutely nothing goes right. Decorations fall down. Every single raffle prize is stolen from the party by the people assigned to watch over them. And when a real fire occurs, the town’s new fire engine gets stuck in a snowdrift. The firemen are stuck trying to put out the fire with snow while the wait staff brings out drinks for the ball attendees.
As with “Loves of a Blonde,” Forman used a cast of non-actors for “Firemen’s Ball,” here a real-life group of volunteer fire fighters he met while in the village of Vrchlabí. They’re a spectacularly natural bunch of folks, even by the already-impressive standards Forman established with “Loves of a Blonde.” The comedy of “Firemen’s Ball” is mostly of the broad, physical variety, and everyone in this movie hits their mark with the precision of William Tell.
Which brings us to the curious thing about “Firemen’s Ball.” Despite pretty obvious comparisons throughout the movie to the corrupt, self-important nature of the communist and socialist leadership at the time, Forman has always maintained that the movie doesn’t contain any hidden symbols or meanings. It’s simply a movie about a bunch of inept volunteer firemen that, strangely enough, could just as easily be a biting satire about life under communist rule. Practically every frame of the movie could potentially have a message behind it, and an angry one at that.
While I’m sure the events in the movie have at least some basis in events that Forman witnessed himself, or stories he was told by the firemen he worked with, I don’t entirely buy that the movie is free from political allegory. The connections just feel too obvious. But I think the possibility that “The Firemen’s Ball” really is a slice-of-life movie is even more intriguing from a political standpoint. Forman shows a community where people steal from under each other’s noses with no remorse, and where image is more important than honesty or integrity. If even the local volunteer fire brigade in a tiny rural village can’t stay on the straight and narrow, what does that say about the people in charge of the country?
When “The Firemen’s Ball” came out in 1967, it managed to offend almost everyone involved with the movie (except, ironically, the cast, who liked it), and everyone with any kind of influence in the Czech government who saw it. Even the movie’s Italian producer, Carlo Ponti, wanted his money back. It’s actually thanks to French New Wave hero Francois Truffaut that the movie got any distribution outside of Czechoslovakia. Forman called in a favor and got Truffaut to buy the rights to the movie, ensuring it would continue to exist outside its native country, where the movie had been banned.
The entire hullabaloo around the movie caused Forman to pull up stakes and move to the U.S., where he could make movies without fear of repercussion from the government. It seems Forman was pretty happy about it from an artistic standpoint, and it shows up in his work quite often. Some of his best English-language movies are about people who aren’t in line with typical morals or social behaviors. The difference is most of Forman’s heroes (like Mozart, Andy Kauffman and Larry Flynt— note they’re all real people) end up overcoming the system. They’re praised for being different. That, in a nutshell, may be the biggest political statement of Forman’s career—that it’s nice to live in a place where people can say and do the things they want, even when other people may not like it.