Sadly, Milos Forman is better remembered for the films he made after his exile from communist Czechoslovakia in America; Amadeus, Man on the Moon, and of course, One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. All fine films no doubt, but as excellently-made as they are, they pale in comparison to this little film, only 73 minutes in length, yet packed with so much punch and humour and genial laughter that it is impossible not to love. The Firemen’s Ball, Forman’s last film before the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring and forced a great many of the Czechoslovak New Wave’s leading lights away from their native land, is somewhat overlooked compared to the director’s later films, but it is far superior.
The set up is simple: a fireman’s committee in a regional town somewhere in Czechoslovakia are having their annual ball. They wish to honour their old chairman, now 86 and dying from cancer, with a symbolic present. Why did not do this the previous year before he was diagnosed with cancer no one is sure. Alongside this, the programme for the night includes a lottery and a beauty pageant. As one might expect however, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. The lottery prizes get stolen, the beauty pageant descends into chaos because nobody knows how to organise one, and neither are any of the girls in town particularly interested in it, and to top it all off, amidst the noise and the mayhem the firemen themselves barely hear the din of the fire alarm warning them of a blaze in the town.
Unsurprisingly given that this film was quickly banned in Czechoslovakia by the Soviet-puppet authorities, The Firemen’s Ball functions very clearly as a satire on low-level Communist bureaucracy, where incompetence frequently meets party-line rhetoric in conjunction with arrogance and buffoonery. Forman draws from a non-professional cast some magnificent comic performances – the firemen all look exactly like the sort of terribly bored unimaginative bureaucrats that Soviet-style Communism was so adept at creating, (and let’s face it, so is the West). Part of what makes the film so fresh to watch even today is that, although we like to pretend that we’re all lovely and free here in the UK, we too have an incredible ability to staff all our middle-management positions with the most unimaginative, stupid people in society. The people that The Firemen’s Ball pokes fun at, with their unequalled love of passing the blame onto someone else at every opportunity, still find many parallels in today’s world.
However, Forman’s film is no bitter stab at the Soviet system. It is a film teeming with life and love for its characters, no matter how foolish they may be. Forman directs the scenes with a remarkable comic timing for reaction shots placed in exactly the right moment. In fact, he seems to craft whole jokes out of characters reacting to each other, dialogue be damned, echoing a Jacques Tati film and in turn, some of the silent greats. There’s a focus and clarity in the direction that allows us the viewer to muddle through the chaos and hit at the funny – Forman often cuts away to a close-up of something in the ball just going about their business, yet he always manages to find something funny about what that person is doing, no matter how small or inconsequential it is. This talent for observation in small details and minor incidents is a vital part of good comedy, but the humour is never bitter towards its characters, only the system which encourages such silly behaviour.
The Firemen’s Ball is truly a superb film, and highly overlooked in the context of the rest of Milos Forman’s long and storied career. A superb satire, but also one that doesn’t bore you with its politics, for the front and centre of the film’s humour is built out of good ol’ fashioned slapstick, and everyone loves a pratfall.