Tuesday, 28 May 2019

The Fireman's Ball (Hori, Ma Panenko) (1967)

Brandmænd i fyr og flame
In my last review, that of “Land Entranced”, I wrote of a political allegory that used poetic avantgarde as instrument and I was lamenting how I preferred the instrument to be dark comedy. Well, this is exactly what we get in “The Firemen’s Ball”. These two movies could not be paired better.

It works so much better with dark comedy. The movie is so much easier to watch, and the points are driven home far more elegant. There really is no need for symbolism to corrupt the plot as this movie proves. You can have a perfectly coherent story and still have it packed with symbolic references.

I am a bit ahead of myself. The movie we are talking about is “The Firemen’s Ball”, directed by Milos Forman, and the last movie he directed in Czechoslovakia before he left for Hollywood. “The Firemen’s Ball” is a story about a group of firemen in a small Czech town who are arranging a ball for the townspeople. During the ball there will be a ceremony to give an award to the old president of the firemen, a raffle for prizes, typically of foodstuff that is hard to get in communist Czechoslovakia and a beauty contest.

The problem is just that these firemen makes incompetence too generous a word. Amazingly they manage to mess up everything. The prizes for the raffle are getting pilfered and the beauty contest… that is a piece of art. These guys have no idea what they are doing, and their plan is… nonexistent. The girls are practically kidnapped off the floor to attend or are promoted by relatives as favors, the firemen are trying and failing to wing it and before they can present the contestants, all the girls run away and hide in the toilet. Total chaos.

In the middle of it all there is a real fire. A house is burning and now you would think that the firemen are finally on home turf. This they should be able to handle. Alas, the fire trucks are stuck in the snow so all they can do is argue in front of the burning house and try to shovel some snow on it.

This is hilariously funny. Especially because it is not a silly comedy with a lot of gags, but because these firemen mean so well, they really want to do the right thing but they have absolutely no idea what they are doing and so it all falls apart between their hands. The beauty contest was a riot and the scene where they desperately try to save the raffle by closing the light so people can return the stolen goods is a hoot. In the darkness instead of returning the prizes, the rest of them are stolen.

But this is also a political allegory of communism in Czechoslovakia, even though Forman allegedly never admitted it. The firemen are politicians who are hopelessly unprepared and unable to deal with the various elements of the party (running the country). In the face of real trouble (the fire) they are impotent, and the victims of their impotence only get a long nose. The firemen never seem to get how incompetent they are and when a fireman is caught as the only one returning a price (that his wife had pilfered) one of the firemen is upset, not that he stole the cheese but that he tried to return it and got caught. Now everybody would think they are all dishonest as if they did not think so already. Probably a quite precise picture of life in communist Czechoslovakia.

It is a wonderful movie that hits all the right notes, probably helped by the mostly amateur cast. There is a naturalism here that helps to accentuate the comedy and it simply works. I can only recommend it.

The communist leadership in Czechoslovakia did not like it though. It was banned forever. Somebody felt it was a little too true…


  1. This is so great! I saw Daisies and this and Marketa Lazarova within a few months of each other and I always have trouble picking my favorite. Such a great time for Czech cinema!

    1. So far this is my Czech movie, but I know there is more to come.

  2. I've never met a Milos Forman film I didn't love!