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Communist Comedy: Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (1967) – Blu-ray review

October 12, 2015 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Forman has a ball, disguising social protest as raucous slapstick and channelling the chaos so well it’s hard to see the joins.

1 Firemens Ball

The Firemen’s Ball
(Milos Forman, 1967)

The rigours of filmmaking so often result in stories about order and control; even when things go awry, there’s a logic and structure to the narrative. The joy of Milos Forman’s satirical comedy is the invisibility of the authorial control. On-screen, it looks and feels as chaotic as the events it describes.

It’s the film for which the expression “couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery” might have been invented. Forman follows the hapless exploits of the committee in charge of the titular event; all they have to do is look after the raffle prizes and shortlist entrants into the beauty pageant but, despite there being nearly a dozen of them, the situation devolves into a shambolic, if hilarious, mess involving collapsing ladders, unwilling starlets and lots of booze.

Of course, it isn’t really about a bunch of firemen. Against the backdrop of a stern, repressive regime such as Communist Czechoslovakia – and coincidentally released at the time of a brutal suppression of student protests – a film director couldn’t simply criticise the authorities head-on. Instead, Forman delivered this wonderfully allusive study of bureaucratic incompetence and social malaise, disguised as the broadest of farces. Not that it helped Forman; the authorities saw through the ruse and banned it… but then, Forman’s cheeky two-fingered salute wasn’t exactly subtle.

So, dig the allegory. A pageant where the judges are so weak-willed they try to fix the rules based on who shows the most flesh? A populace so prone to petty crime that, when offered the opportunity to return ill-gotten wares, they bunk off with the rest? An event in honour of an ex-president, rushed into being not out of merit but because he’s about to drop dead from cancer. And for good measure, when a real fire comes, everybody is too drunk and discombobulated to take effective action.

There are specific allusions in this hypocritical charade. In the most gleefully satirical touch, the committee decides it doesn’t matter how stole what provided they actually bought tickets for the raffle, a sly debunking of Communism’s claim to equality. Yet for the most part, the generality of the satire can be applied to any organisation, or any crowd, giving it a timelessness that other Cold War black comedies (Dr Strangelove, say) cannot hope to emulate.

Forman’s hands-off direction is crucial. He simply fixes a telephoto lens to the camera and lets it observe the swarm of bodies, perpetually panning to find points of interest; crucially, the use of non-professionals adds to the rough realism, with the clarity of Miroslav cinematography ably capturing the expressively bulbous features of the firemen. Yet there’s a subtle but sharp governance of the material via the editing, a marvel of propulsion that is always alert to new moments of comedy and which ensures that each disaster sets up the next. For good measure, the hysteria is overladen with the never-ending irritation of the ball’s oompa-loompa score, whose driving energy fuels the chaos.

Forman would head off to Hollywood after this; One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The People Versus Larry Flynt would follow. Everything that is great about those films was perfected here, notably the ability to sweeten the sourest of socio-political pills with an engaging, darkly comic humanism. Yet here, forced by his environment to (pretend to) behave, Forman set a standard for slapstick satire that is still hard to beat.

The Firemen’s Ball is released on Blu-ray today. Extras include a detailed primer on the film’s place in the 1960s Czech New Wave.

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