Sat, 26 Sep 2020

The Firemen's Ball (Hor, m panenko)

Director: Milos Forman

Screenplay: Milos Forman, Jaroslav Papousek, Ivan Passer, Vclav Sasek
Stars: Jan Vostrcil (Head of Committee), Josef Sebanek (Committee Member), Josef Valnoha (Committee Member), Frantisek Debelka (Committee Member), Josef Kolb (Josef), Jan Stockl (Retired Fire Chief), Vratislav Cermak (Committee Member)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1967
Country: Czechoslovakia
The Firemen's Ball DVD Cover
The Fireman's Ball

Filmed in 1966 and released in 1967, just a few weeks before Soviet tanks rumbled in Czechoslovakia, Milos Forman's The Firemen's Ball (Hor, m panenko) was a political bombshell barely disguised as a seemingly innocuous comedy of errors. Its brilliance is its multifaceted take on human silliness, as it plays on one level as a hilarious setpiece about the disasters that befall a befuddled group of well-meaning but incompetent firemen trying to stage an elaborate ball for the local townspeople, on a second level as a scathing indictment of the floundering Czech government. On the first level, the jokes are funny; on the second, they are disturbing.

Running a barely feature-length 73 minutes, The Firemen's Ball is deceptively simple in a sublime sort of way. It stars a cast composed entirely of nonprofessional actors from a small Czech town where Forman and his coscreenwriters, Jaroslav Papousek, Ivan Passer, and Vclav Sasek, went to find solitude and inspiration for their follow-up to Forman's previous film, the international success Loves of a Blonde (1965). Taking place almost entirely within a small town's convention hall, the story of the firemen's ball slowly escalates with dilemma after dilemma, problem after problem, that neither the head of the firemen's committee (Jan Vostrcil), nor any of the committee members, is capable of dealing with or solving.

Everything starts on the wrong foot when it is noticed that one of the many raffle prizes--a cake--has been stolen, and, while dealing with that problem, the banner for the ball that has been so painstakingly painted catches fire and burns up. It's never a good sign when the banner at a firemen's ball catches fire and burns up, but that's about the best thing that happens all night.

By evening's end, all of the raffle prizes have been stolen, the much-anticipated "beauty contest" has turned into an embarrassing parade of homely girls that eventually devolves into utter chaos, and a nearby house burns to the ground because the firemen are so involved with their ball that they aren't prepared to fight a fire. The shot of several of them shoveling snow onto the burning house is a perfectly captured moment of absolute inadequacy, especially as it is framed as a direct juxtaposition to the banner that burned down early in the movie, which depicted the brave firemen battling the blaze of a burning house and rescuing a little girl. In this way, on an allegorical level, the film as a whole is a near perfect distillation of the failure of the socialist state: While the bureaucracy squabbles amongst itself, disconnected from those below them, yet purporting to have their interests in mind, houses burn down and people steal to survive.

By all accounts, The Firemen's Ball should be a one-joke political satire, but Forman brings a level of humanity to the allegorical meltdown that belies its sharply barbed political intentions. While the firemen are intended to stand for the communist political elite then in charge of Czechoslovakia, their characters expand beyond simple symbolism--although largely nameless, they become oddly compelling and sympathetic, even when in the utter throes of their own incompetence. Much like the communists, they hew the "party line" in their undying devotion to the honor of the fire brigade, even when all signs point otherwise. Yet, their devotion is both sadly funny and strangely touching. Even in the absurdity, Forman manages to touch on the underlying humanity, which was one of his greatest skills as a filmmaker and one of the chief characteristics of the Czech New Wave, which, alas, came to an end after the release of The Firemen's Ball due to the Soviet invasion and the final, resounding crash-down of the Iron Curtain.

Thankfully, Forman had secured financing from sources outside the country, so The Firemen's Ball was distributed internationally and widely seen (in Czechoslovakia, it was "banned for life"). The fall-out from this film was severe, so severe that it was one of the major impetuses for Forman to leave Czechoslovakia and come to the United States, where he continued to make compelling films. Still, The Firemen's Ball will always stand as one of his supreme achievements--so simple, yet so profound in the way it captures everything that was wrong at that time and in that place.

The Firemen's Ball Criterion Collection Directed-Approved DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1

Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural

Languages Czech

Video interview with director Milos Forman

Behind-the-scenes featurette on the transfer

Distributor The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateFebruary 12, 2002

The Firemen's Ball has been digitally restored from a 35mm interpositive struck from the original negative at the Filmov Laboratory at Barrandov Studios in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where it was first processed. The transfer was supervised and color-corrected by the film's cinematographer, Miroslav Ondrcek, and the result is outstanding, with a particularly filmlike appearance. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, The Firemen's Ball looks nearly pristine, with bright, bold colors that are well saturated and smooth, and a near-complete absence of any artifacts or signs of age (there is one black hairline early on, but it's never heard from again after that). The image is smooth and well-detailed, with little in the way of grain, even in the dark, high-contrast sequence outside when the house burns down. This is another first-rate transfer from Criterion.

The soundtrack is presented in clean, largely hiss-free Dolby Digital one-channel monaural.

Included on the disc are two brief featurettes. The first is a 15-minute video interview with cowriter/director Milos Forman that focuses almost entirely on the political ramifications of The Firemen's Ball. Most of the stories he tells are well-known by this point (the less-then-enthusiastic response of the Czech censors, the problems with financing when Italian producer Carlo Ponti withdrew his funds), but it's always intriguing hearing them coming directly from Forman himself.

The second featurette runs about four and a half minutes and focuses on the digital restoration of the film and its transfer. Forman opens the featurette with a few comments about his first experience shooting a color film, but most of the footage is of cinematographer Miroslav Ondrcek supervising color correction to ensure that the tones remain consistent throughout the transfer.

Copyright 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (4)


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