The creative process is difficult under any circumstances and in any milieu. However, it becomes excruciatingly difficult under the all-seeing, intrusive cloak of a communist dictatorship. Milos Forman’s Horí, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball) is a product of – actually, a reaction to – the Czechoslovakian communist regime during the months leading up to the “Prague Spring”.
What made Forman’s task such a daunting one was that he created a film critical of communism right under the noses of the arm-twisting Communist Party censors. This took some conviction and spine on his part. His approach was partly enabled by the fact that The Firemen’s Ball is a satire. This was its saving grace, a fact that allowed Forman’s hilarious film to wriggle under the communist bureaucratic radar. But it is precisely the bumbling inefficiency of that communist bureaucracy that Forman’s film aptly targeted.
Forman himself appears at the start of the film – mockingly – and offers the viewer a first-person explanation of the strange reaction his film received in his native Czechoslovakia, when supposedly 40,000 firemen resigned in protest after its release. Forman looks at the camera straight-faced and reaffirms, to all those who were offended by his film, that it “is not about firemen, and that the firemen in the film are merely symbols of the whole society”. Genuinely convincing, he then goes on to say that his explanation subsequently made the firemen “peaceful and happy”.
The joke, of course, is not so much on the incompetent, childlike firemen; rather it concerns the fact that a film made in a communist country should begin with a disclaimer of its intention not to offend those who are in a position to put the filmmaker’s head on the chopping-block. Part of the disclaimer that “frames” this spirited Swiftian cinematic satire goes on to add: “The director only wants the viewer to have a good time.”
This statement, too, twists the knife a little deeper into the belly of the communist authorities. The idea of relaxing and abandoning oneself to leisure – what Forman refers to as “fun” – in communist Czechoslovakia, in 1967, is essentially a tragic-comic contradiction, the true import and meaning of which will escape many viewers today. “Fun in communist Czechoslovakia” is an oxymoron that Forman needed to recognise publicly.
But Forman didn’t end his joke there. He goes on to add: “The film is about firemen but without hidden meaning or double meaning.” Apparently, Forman had learned from the communist authorities the lesson of how to practice a “double” morality, and he “stuck it to them” in a Marx Brothers-like (no pun intended), glaring, black comedy fashion.
The Firemen’s Ball is, essentially, a farce of communist society. What makes the film so effective is that the director does not force or overstate the many powerful criticisms that it makes. Instead, he allows the ridicule that comes by way of the eventual self-implosion of communist societies to shine through.
The plot of the film is ingenious, though rather unpretentious. Local firemen, their families and friends gather in a large hall to celebrate the annual firemen’s ball where a retiring fire chief who has cancer will be honoured. From the beginning of the film everything that can go wrong does: a banner catches fire, someone falls from a ladder, and then someone steals a cake. In fact, one of the subtle motifs of the film features people stealing comestibles. The mayhem and satire may seem to be of a predominantly physical nature at first, but on closer inspection the viewer comes to realise that they are observing neurotic people who are used to doing everything by committee.
For instance, the firemen are organised into several committees: one is in charge of choosing the young women who will be selected for the beauty pageant; another has to present the retiring fire chief with a small axe. Everyone in this film is suspicious of everyone else. The firemen wear uniforms that look very much like those of the military. Again, subtlety is Forman’s great genius in this film. The Firemen’s Ball slowly grows on the viewer, and in the passage of time we come to understand just why everyone acts as they do. Appropriately, the band plays really obnoxious music that sounds like an untiring, meandering march.
Also effective is Forman’s use of the firemen to poke fun at the moral sterility of communist society. While he could have chosen others to develop his critical themes – Party officials or one-eyed communist intellectuals – he picks on a group of men who, at least at face value, seem to keep their distance from the official bureaucracy. But the firemen are in fact the peons of a highly bureaucratised political order. Their incompetence comes through when a house across the street catches fire and they run over to it much like frightened children. Of course, the house burns to the ground.
In fact, the firemen, or as Forman argues, their entire society, lack all capacity for subtlety. Forman does a wonderful job of depicting the many nuances that mark communist societies and the day-to-day lives of their people. When the house burns down its owner, an old, distraught man is brought into the ball. The man is given raffle tickets and looks at this “gift” with contempt. Meanwhile, the firemen regard this action as a token of their charity. The hilarity escalates when the presenter cannot find the appropriate, politically correct words to finish his sentence: “The proceeds are the result of our….” Then, someone from the audience suggests, “generosity”. The presenter answers: “Our generosity is important but….” Someone else from the audience suggests, “benevolence”. Another person cries out, “graciousness”. But the presenter is not yet satisfied. Then a young man shouts, “comradeship”, and immediately the presenter of the raffle tickets breaks a smile and says, “solidarity” is the perfect word. Then, almost on cue, the old man who is to receive the raffle tickets says, “My house burned down. I need money.”
As this is going on one of the firemen realises that just about all of the prizes have been stolen. They begin to accuse each other of this act. In a fit of Kafkaesque absurdity, one fireman says, “[t]he idea of the brigade is more important to me than my idea of being an honest man”. But the greatest insanity is reserved for a fireman who reasons “that all those who bought a raffle ticket, but who did not steal are stupid for not stealing”. Another fireman stands logic on its head when he utters that “everyone at the ball is a suspect, therefore they are all guilty. This is the truth.”
The hall empties while the firemen deliberate in a back room about what to do about the stolen goods. When they finally get around to offering the retiring chief his symbolic axe they discover that it has also been stolen. By the end of the film, Forman has successfully managed to convey the feeling of hopelessness and desperation so prevalent in communist societies, when even a seemingly joyous occasion turns out to be a mindless human farce.
Some time later, when Forman had left Czechoslovakia, he did admit that The Firemen’s Ball was indeed a criticism of the ruling communist leaders.
Horí, má panenko/The Firemen’s Ball (1967 Czechoslavakia 73 mins)
Prod Co: Barrandov Film Studio Prod: Rodolf Hájek Dir: Milos Forman Scr: Jaroslav Papousek
Phot: Miroslav Ondrícek Ed: Miroslav Hájek Art Dir: Karel Cerny Mus: Karel Mares
Cast: Jan Vostrcil, Josef Sebánek, Josef Valnoha, Frantisek Debelka, Josef Kolb, Jan Stöckl, Vratislav Cermák, Josef Rehorek