UK Release Date: 12th October 2015
Runtime: 73 minutes
Director: Milos Forman
Writer: Milos Forman, Jaroslav Papousek, Ivan Passer
Starring: Jan Vostrcil, Josef Sebánek, Josef Valnoha, Josef Kolb
Synopsis: The eponymous event goes awry as a bumbling, bureaucratic committee tries to maintain control.
Czech filmmaker Milos Forman is best known today for his American work, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, which both won him the Oscar for Best Director. Before then, however, he was a key figure in the Czech New Wave – most notably with The Firemen’s Ball, which was eternally banned by the Soviets when it began to be widely discussed as an allegorical criticism of the regime.
The Firemen’s Ball is now available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK, courtesy of the team at Arrow Films.
A committee of firemen, largely played by amateur actors, in a small town prepare their annual ball, in which an ageing former colleague will be presented with a gift. They organise a tombola and a beauty contest in an attempt to make the evening interesting. On the night, though, an escalating series of misadventures leads to the whole event becoming an enormous disaster.
| “I know all about Miss Fireman, you dirty old goats!”
Forman’s last Czech film is a naturalistic farce, which certainly does serve as a satire of nonsensical bureaucracy and the corruption of society. The use of non-professional performers give it an ersatz, unusual feel that feeds into the bizarre image it paints of society. There’s an off-kilter tone to The Firemen’s Ball that creates much of its comedy and elevates what would be a rather ordinary, not particularly amusing farce to the level of something more interesting.
In its early stages, The Firemen’s Ball goes for farce over commentary to amusing effect. Men falling off ladders and missing chocolate cakes are the order of the day, but this soon gives way to a more damning account of lecherous masculinity and, later, the inherent flaws with bureaucracy. By the time a man stricken by a fire in his home dismisses the false gesture of kindness by the attendees of the ball, the context of the story is clear. Well-intentioned acts can be meaningless if done with minimum effort or consideration.
The film has suffered a little from the passing of time, leaving the humour a little on the dated side. This leads to the film being wryly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny, but Forman gets interesting performances from his central cast and packs a real punch in the later stages when the concept of honesty in the face of reputational damage gets a thorough dissection.
| “The prestige of the brigade is more important than my honesty.”
The restoration of the film for Blu-ray by Arrow Films is nothing short of spectacular. Despite the rather dated feel of the film’s tone and comedy, it has the appearance of something that could’ve been made within the last few years, thanks to the stunning 4k transfer of the original print, supervised by the Czech National Film Archive.
The extras package is handsome, featuring a featurette on the impressive restoration as well as archive interviews with Forman and several other key people from the film. In terms of new features, there’s a detailed appreciation from Czech cinema expert David Sorfa that is exhaustive and often intriguing, but sometimes dull as ditchwater.
Pop or Poop?
Full of thematic depth despite its lightweight exterior, The Firemen’s Ball is an interesting film given what its director went on to produce.
Not as funny as a comedy probably should be, Milos Forman nevertheless gives his film a few prickly edges and benefits from the bizarre quality of his unprofessional cast.
It’s not an essential film by any means, but there are several scenes here – lights out, for instance – that make it well worth 80 minutes of your time.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
The Firemen’s Ball is available on Blu-ray from today courtesy of Arrow Films.