Released three months before the Soviet crackdown on the progressive Dubček administration in Czechoslovakia, Milos Forman still had to deal with a negative reaction to 'The Fireman's Ball' from both Communist censors and his own producer, Carlo Ponti. Forman's farce was intended as a good-natured ribbing of the Communist system, specifically its corruption and bureaucratic ineptness. The censors and Ponti didn't like it because in their eyes, it had no sympathy for its working class subjects, who come across as complete fools.
As the story goes, Communist officials decided to play the film in the small town where the film was shot, which featured locals playing themselves as members of the local fireman's committee. As things turned out, the officials were shocked when the townspeople vigorously applauded the film. They identified immediately with the broken down system, where a fire breaks out across the street, but the firefighters are unable to do anything, as their fire truck ends up stuck in the snow. As for their farcical characters, they regarded it as simply 'acting' and obviously were flattered to be chosen to be part of a professional film production. Forman was ultimately saved by French director Francois Traffaut, who ended up buying the film with some partners and distributing it outside of Czechoslovakia, where it was permanently banned after the Soviet invasion.
As for the film itself, 'The Fireman's Ball', manages to be distinctive, mainly on the basis of the authenticity of its performers. You have to love the amateur cast Forman has assembled here, as they seem to have a natural flair for farce. Nonetheless, the basic theme of the film, the corruption inherent in the Communist system of that time, as evidenced by the constant thefts that occur during the event, go on ad infinitum.
That's not to say there aren't occasional laughs. When the Chairman has the lights turned off, expecting the thief to return the lottery presents, when the lights do come back on, the opposite occurs: the rest of the gifts are all missing. The deepest laugh remains subtle: one of the firemen attempts to return a headcheese (cold cut) to the dining table, after he discovers his wife has pilfered it. Completely embarrassed, he passes out when everyone observes what he's trying to do and an argument ensues right afterward between two of his colleagues, one shouting down the other that by being 'honest', he's embarrassed the fire brigade. It seems that being honest, is much less desirable then looking out for one's own self-interest.
The Fireman's Ball plot involves the fire committee's inept manner in which they attempt to choose a local beauty queen. The young women who are conscripted appear not to take the fire officials seriously, and end up running off to the ladies room, where they've made it clear that they have no intention of participating in the committee's ultimate goal (the idea is for the winner of the pageant to present a memento to their retiring chief). While it's one thing for the firemen to be overwhelmed in dealing with the 'larceny problem' at the ball, it's another to come off as completely ridiculous, which is what they appear to be, when they foolishly attempt to put the pageant together and then atrociously fail, with all the young women giggling, and running away from them. Perhaps this is why Mr. Ponti, the film's original producer, did not care for the film.
Forman does well in breaking up the action at the ball, when he introduces the fire at the old man's house, near the dance hall. The event turns out to be bittersweet, as there's also some humor attached to the somber events. We see this when the crowd moves the old man closer to the fire, as he complains about being cold. And later when they want to give him some lottery tickets, he asks for money instead, as it's obvious all the prizes now have been stolen.
'The Fireman's Ball' ends on two additional humorous notes. First, the chief finally receives his honorarium from his colleagues--but of course it turns out to be stolen. And the old man whose house has burned down, joins another old man in his bed, without a roof over it!
Forman's talent here was in getting much out of his amateur cast as well as stretching out a one joke idea, to a full length feature. He makes his point about corruption in Communist society well, in a series of memorable scenes but is less successful, as he dumbs down his firemen committee members, a tad bit too much. 'The Fireman's Ball' is more important in the overall history of international cinema and world history, than as a critical contribution to the art of comic screen writing.
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