Director: Milos Forman
Screenplay: Milos Forman, Jaroslav Papousek, Ivan Passer
Based on a Story by: Václav Sasek
Starring: Jan Vostrcil, Josef Sebánek, Josef Valnoha
Country: Czechoslovakia, Italy
Running Time: 71 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I've mentioned my love of Mark Cousins' The Story of Film: An Odyssey on several occasions, even listing it as my favourite film of 2012. One of the joys I found in that documentary was discovering obscure or forgotten classics to add to my ever expanding 'to watch' list. So whenever I come across a title mentioned in the documentary I get excited. Milos Forman's The Firemen's Ball is one such film and the wonderful team over at Arrow have released it on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD, which of course meant I leapt at the chance of reviewing it for them.
Milos Forman is best known for the Hollywood classics One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, as well as the 90's biopics The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. However, he started his directing career in his native Czechoslovakia. His films made there were considered key titles in the country's New Wave movement, particularly The Firemen's Ball, which was his final Czech film before moving to the US.
Other than a brief expository opening scene, The Firemen's Ball takes place during one evening's celebrations in honour of the former president of a small town's fire department. A group of ageing volunteer firemen host the event and their clumsy attempts to put on a good show, including an ill-fated beauty pageant, unfold before us in an ever escalating series of disasters.
It's refreshing to come across a respected classic of world cinema that's so much fun. The farcical elements are well executed and genuinely funny without resorting to cheap gags or low rate innuendos. The pre-credits falling ladder sequence is predictable and cliché perhaps, but still works and sets the tone nicely for the rest of the film.
Carry On in Czechoslovakia this is not though. Under the surface, the film is a biting satire of the Communist rule over the country, a fact that prompted it to get banned there. My knowledge of Czech history and politics is minimal so I'm sure I missed a lot of the finer details, but the depiction of the volunteers trying to act as leaders over the townsfolk, but failing miserably, is clear. Their dishonesty is highlighted too, particularly in the final scenes where the firemen try to turn the evening's raffle into a charitable gesture but everything gets stolen.
There is a dark edge to affairs too as the lecherous firemen try to order around the young women at the party for the beauty pageant. They fail to maintain control over them by the end, but there still remains a seedy taste to affairs.
There are some fairly surreal moments too. A fire which decimates an old man's house brings everyone out of the party to watch whilst the firemen do their duties (which don't actually save the house). This gets surreal when the fire becomes part of the evening's entertainment and the barman even sets up a drinks table by the blaze. The wonderful final shot is unusual too, in which the old man goes off to bed in his makeshift 'room', consisting of his bed and a few of his belongings strewn out in the snow. Adding to this peculiar setting is one of the firemen in the old man's bed, dressed in a lady's headscarf to keep warm.
Making all of this work effectively without just becoming ridiculous is Forman's direction and the performances. Although the film is farcical, it's all played quite straight and is presented naturally. The largely non-professional cast is believable even in their broader moments and the sense of setting feels realistic through the crowded yet classily controlled mis-en-scene and cinematography.
It's a film that's very clever at being silly and as such it's a pleasurable watch yet never feels like a guilty pleasure. Some of the allegorical elements were lost on me perhaps, but as a short, sharp and enjoyable satire, it's hard to fault.
The Firemen's Ball is out now on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and audio quality is fantastic. The print is spotless without looking 'over scrubbed' and the brass band soundtrack comes through nicely.
There is a decent handful of extra features included too. There's an appreciation by Czech film expert David Sorfa, which is very detailed and helps give a deeper understanding of the film even if he gets a little carried away with his subtextual theories at times. There are also archival interviews with director Milos Forman, cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek and co-writer Ivan Passer. Another featurette is New Wave Faces, in which Michael Brooke salutes the non-professional actors who made an indelible impression on 1960s Czech cinema. Finally you get a 2 ½ minute look at the restoration process. This is too brief to be all that informative, but you get a few glimpses at the hard work that was put into making the film look and sound as good as it does.
And as with all Arrow releases, you get a booklet in with the package, which is as informative as always.