Quick Thoughts: The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, Má Panenko, 1967)
Made by Miloš Forman, this is the Czech film of the series.
Beyond all else, The Firemen’s Ball is a hilarious film rife with a cacophony of inadvertent comedic anarchy that seems to be caught in a perpetual cycle of prat falls. However, this film is probably better known as the movie that was banned forever in the Czech Republic in 1968 after the Soviet Union invaded the country and bolstered their authoritarian communist party. Because of the controversy that producers foresaw in this film, director, Miloš Forman, who later made One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, had his financing stripped, which left him vulnerable to 10-years imprisonment for economic damage the state, but, he was saved by French producers such as François Truffaut who financed and gave the film distribution.
The Firemen’s Ball was perceived to be so controversial because of its satirical depiction of a state organisation. So, not only were Czech firemen in protest of this film when it was released (and Forman would have to go on a tour of the Czech Republic to defame this reading), but political parties read this film as a commentary on communism and Soviet Russia. In such, they saw a critique of an organised event with the facade of good and kindness, that turns sour and falls apart by virtue of bureaucracy, idiocy, exploitation and ill-motives. This triggers a collapse in the structure of the community and everything seems to fall apart whilst the organisers (the firemen) only manage to honour their former president with an empty box.
There is great power in this story which gives it qualities to transcend into a meta-narrative, one that does not just belong to Foreman and the makers of this film, but to all who see it and thus give it meaning. Understanding this, Foreman commented on his film and the surrounding controversy as such:
“I didn’t want to give any special message or allegory. I wanted just to make a comedy knowing that if I’ll be real, if I’ll be true, the film will automatically reveal an allegorical sense”
As Foreman recognises, from truth comes an allegory; a concept that can be mapped onto reality with reliability and punch. And, in my view, this is what this film represents. It is not so much that this is an intricately smart narrative that is rife with many clear allusions to, and symbols implying, the Soviet Union and its failures. Instead, this film is like a great, metaphorical hole that people recognise as dangerous and so, through their laughter and recognition of the film as satire, step around it. Having recognised one hole that people in this narrative fall down makes seeing other holes like it very easy. Thus, this is a film about a failed organisation and, in recognising this, looking past other failing bureaucratic systems is hard. To better explain:
A family of five, one elder daughter, two young sons, a house wife and an alcoholic father watch a movie: Flight from 2012.
With scenes like this, the room becomes overwhelmingly tense for the three children. Mum just looks at the floor whilst dad watches, sipping from his can, gruffly mumbling about how Denzel Washington’s character is an idiot. As more scenes of alcoholism find their way to the screen, the dad grows louder in his critique of the movie until mum has to turn the TV off and send the kids to bed because it’s getting late. After a while of silence, the father starts ranting about how bad the movie was, and mum tries to get him to forget about it, but that only sparks another argument that the kids upstairs try to ignore as they go to sleep.
We could imagine that, in many respects, this is what this movie managed to do with its ‘truth’ in the Czech Republic of the late 60s. This makes The Firemen’s Ball a brilliant and significant film, especially when seen as a (possibly inadvertently) subversive Czech New Wave picture. So, to see not just an excellent comedy, but a contextually expressively truthful allegory, certainly give The Firemen’s Ball a watch.
Attila ’74 – History On Film
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