Starring: Jan Vostrcil, Josef Sebanek, Josef Valnoha
Director: Milos Forman
Distributor: Umbrella World Cinema DVD
A bunch of bumbling firemen set out to honour their former president on the occasion of his 86th birthday by presenting him with an engraved trophy hatchet at their annual Firemen’s Ball. But even before the guests start arriving things go terribly wrong: prizes on the tombola table start mysteriously disappearing and the decorative banner above the stage goes up in flames. When the hundred or so revellers do eventually turn up, things go from bad to worse as the hopeless old firemen become obsessed with the recruitment of young ladies for a beauty pageant. The brass band plays on and on as the reluctant candidates are dragged screaming across the floor to the podium until anarchy reigns supreme.
Inspired by a real life firemen’s ball in a provincial northern Bohemian town, Czech director and co-writer Milos Foreman devised this documentary-like film as a not-so-subtle allegory for the Soviet-style leadership operating in his homeland in the late 1960s. Bogged down in bureaucracy, susceptible to bribes and sex crazed to the point of utter distraction, the firemen represent the old guard whose authority is increasingly being undermined. While they bicker about how they should conduct the official ceremony, a nearby farmhouse burns to the ground.
Not surprisingly, The Firemen’s Ball was denounced by the Politburo and volunteer fire brigades alike. It was also rejected by its co-producer, Carlo Ponti. Luckily, for film buffs, Truffaut came to the rescue and a print was smuggled out of the country just before the new Communist regime declared it “banned forever”. Forman too fled across the Iron Curtain to work on films like One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest and Hair. But with this film he left us a loving portrait of a time, just before the Prague Spring, when a glow of hope still shone from all those fabulous Czech faces.