by Shubhajit Lahiri
If film noirs are known for their cynicism, nihilism, and stylized photography and chiaroscuro, Italian Neorealism for disarming simplicity, stark realism and lyrical storytelling, and French Nouvelle Vague for avant-garde style, cheeky reversal of genre conventions and formalist approach to cinema, Czech New Wave shall always be remembered for the array of searing political satires (oftentimes in the garb of absurdism) it engendered. Despite probably not being as influential and seminal as the other three movements, it was every bit as audacious and fascinating. And Milos Forman, along with his legendary peers like Jiri Menzel, Jan Nemec, Jaromil Jires, Vera Chytilova et al, was one of the most towering figures in the political and artistic time capsule that this essential period of film history represents.
The Firemen’s Ball, released in 1967, was quite an event in the career of Forman, who had become a darling of the Czech New Wave with the delectable comedies Black Peter and Loves of a Blonde, and who would later become a darling of Hollywood what with his One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. It was his first film made in colour; but more importantly, it was his last movie in his native Czechoslovakia before he headed for America just in time before the Prague Spring invasion. The movie, like so many other works belonging to that movement, got banned in the country for its “seditious” and “anti-nationalistic” content, and nearly represented a catastrophe for the director when its initial producer Carlo Ponti withdrew his patronage.
Arguably the crowning achievement of Forman’s career, the movie is about a disastrous ball hosted by a group of rotund and comically clumsy middle-aged firemen in honour of their old, senile retired chief who is not expected to be alive for long. They plan to host a beauty contest with the winner getting to present a memorabilia – a small axe – as a gift to their former chief. But, what follows, is a series of unplanned, chaotic occurrences exemplifying Murphy’s immortal law, viz. if there’s even an iota of a chance of things going wrong, they most certainly will. The movie takes a sharp turn in its finale, and ends on a note of poignancy and deeply affecting melancholia.
The crisp length, absurdist content, seriocomic tone and the plethora of hilarious gags belie the movie’s immense artistic worth and its trenchant socio-political commentary. It is a brilliant, anarchic, genre-bending classic whose comic timings would leave everyone laughing out loud, but whose subversive humour and satirical insights into a society closeted behind Iron Curtain would not escape even those unaware of the then political turmoil surrounding the country. Filled with searing ironies, trenchant wit and dark humour – this incredible piece of work still retains its ability to elicit belly laughter and the taste of bile in equal measures. Though politically charged and a scathing critique on the mediocrity of petit bourgeois, the infectious humour succeeded in overriding them all.
The actors employed were mostly non-professionals with a good proportion of them being repeated from Forman’s previous films. The ensemble cast did a fabulous job in bringing forth the farcical events that ensue over the course of the evening with remarkable economy of motions and expressions – a twitch here and a glance there did the job effectively. Despite the chaotic proceedings, there was a method to the madness that followed on screen, and consequently this remarkable movie, that succeeded in working at various levels (in terms of genre, emotions, observations and politics) owes a lot to its screenwriter Ivan Passer, a long-time friend of Forman and a noted filmmaker in his own right.
To cut a long story short and sum up my deep love for this wonderful classic, the fact that Forman could infuse even the boisterous and burlesque proceedings with a few moments of pathos and subtle (yet acerbic) observations, made the movie both a zeitgeist of the turbulent period it represents today and a pleasure to watch. And, along with a similarly subversive and unforgettable socio-political satire by Jiri Menzel and another personal favourite of mine, Closely Watched Trains, it forms a cornerstone of the Czech New Wave movement and in turn the medium of expression in the cinema.
How The Fireman’s Ball made the Top 100:
No. 4 Bill Riley
No. 6 Shubhajit Lahiri
No. 51 Maurizio Roca
No. 55 Pedro Silva
No. 58 Jason Marshall