Miloš Forman is best known in the Anglophone world for his crowd-pleasing (if delightfully truculent) blockbusters One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Both relate the life stories of iconoclastic eccentrics who burn like a barn fire, disrupting the higher powers, and then die in obscurity. Neither film exactly suggests that Forman was a politically dissident Czech Jewish child of Holocaust victims and whose initial films were banned by the Soviet authorities in Czechoslovakia before he resettled in the United States to become a filmmaker.
Yet this is the key to Forman’s anarchic spirit. His American studio films reflect his impish proclivities and emigration from an authoritarian government. Nobody sells outsider artists quite like Forman does. Yet his most countercultural and rebellious work hails from the first part of his career, when he was a pioneer of the Czechoslovak New Wave of filmmaking, a movement where Czechs and Slovaks used the medium of film to flip the bird at the Kremlin.
In the days before the Prague Spring, when the Czechoslovakians faced the possibility of democratic reforms, and the days following the Warsaw Pact invasion of the country, which quelled those hopes, some filmmakers pioneered a mode of filmmaking that viciously but furtively blasted the structure of Soviet authority. When the Czechs and Slovaks fell behind the Iron Curtain, those modes became stronger than ever.
So Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball is different from Cuckoo’s Nest or Amadeus. It lacks a countercultural protagonist with reckless countercultural tendencies hat results in his early death. Indeed, The Firemen’s Ball doesn’t have a protagonist, instead depicting a cast of Bohemian firemen driving to host a ball which their bureaucratic whims repeatedly thwart. They’re not exactly the kind of frigid authoritarians who’d be villains in Forman’s later work. The firemen — many of whom are played by real Czech firemen with no acting experience — are incompetent rather than malicious, attempting to honor their chairman who, unknown to him because of Soviet medical policy, has cancer. Yet instead of centering the ball around him, they try to protect a series of prizes which are stolen from them. At the start of the film, two firemen argue over whether to hold a latter in place while a man at the top of the ladder accidentally sets a banner on fire. This is revisited later in the film when the firemen are too late to save an old man’s house from burning down because they’re trying to save his prizes. These aren’t cartoon villains — they’re a much worse threat: bureaucratic oafs whose fixation on micromanaging non-issues in an extremely small space fucks everything up.
It’s hard to fathom why the Soviet Union had a problem with a film about incompetent bureaucrats failing to feed civilians. Yet after the Warsaw Powers invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Soviet authorities banned the film forever, which is difficult to fathom when a crucial moment features a panicked old man throwing a stolen ham onto a table and then fainting in front of a crowd. Perhaps the U.S.S.R. took issue with a fireman saying “the prestige of the brigade is more important than my honesty.” We shall never know.
I must admit I’ve always been less fond of The Firemen’s Ball than other Czech New Wave classics. It’s a solidly made comedy, but its one whose appeal has faded over time. Watching elderly men try to administer a beauty contest where they ogle young women and have one girl stand in a swimsuit in front of them simply isn’t that funny in 2023. And for all that the tonal swerve from the screwball disasters of the ball to the human tragedy of the burning house works (and predicts Forman’s future work), it takes far too long to get there. At a simple hour and 13 minutes, The Firemen’s Ball feels protracted, like it would work better as a short film than a feature.
Despite its shortcomings, The Firemen’s Ball more or less works. Its historical importance in light of the Prague Spring, a last cry of rebellious hope before the Soviet takeover, is clear. Yet it’s more potent as a relic than in a film in its own right. It’s important to watch, but I never find myself excited to revisit it. Maybe becoming a diaspora filmmaker was good for Forman. It allowed him to grow, a process that under the Soviet Union was most likely pretty damn hard.