The Firemen’s Ball: Controversy in the Prague Spring.

The Czech New Wave was a period movement in cinema in Czechoslovakia that evolved out of the Devetsil movement of the 1930’s The Devetsil movement was an association of Czech avant guard artists founded mostly in Prague. The artistic output of its members was varied, but typically focused on magic realism, proletkult, and, beginning in 1923, Poetism, an artistic program formulated by Vítězslav Nezval and Karel Teige. The cry of the Devetsil movement was ‘make it new’ and a strong drive to look into ordinary objects for the meaning of art was encouraged. The Czech New Wave was a cinematic artistic group that took up the baton from the dismantled Devetsil movement, and came face to face with the communist regime who had taken over in 1948. These early film makers became the dissenter of their time. Their objective in making films was “to make the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all.” (Cook 1996)

Certain trademarks defined the Czech new wave films. Long unscripted dialogue, dark and absurd humour and the casting of non-professional actors. The films touched on themes such as misguided youths of Czechoslovak society, or the people of their nation caught up in a surrealistic whirlwind. Unfortunately, these films rarely escaped the sensor. The Czech New Wave differs from the French New Wave in that the films usually held stronger narratives and this was in a country with a nationalized film industry, so they had greater access to studios and state funding. Often, they presented films from great national literature.   At the Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers Union in 1971,Milan Kundera himself described this wave of national cinema as an important part of the history of Czechoslovak literature.  Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko 1967), another major film of the era, remains a cult film more than four decades after its release.

As Alexander Dubček came to power over the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia with plans to present “socialism with a human face” through reform and liberalization (a brief period known as the Prague Spring), the Soviet Union and their Warsaw Pact allies invaded to snuff out reform. The Czech New Wavwe  movement came to an abrupt end and Miloš Forman and Jan Němec fled the country, while those who remained faced censorship of their work.

Milos Forman narrowly escaped jail over The Fireman’s Ball and it was the last film he made in his home country. It has become one of the most famous of all the Czech New Wave films. Milos Forman denies the existence of allegory in the film, but given the nature of the Czech New Wave films and the nature of his earlier films (for example Loves of a Blonde) it was quite impossible to imagine he would not be aware of what he was making as he was making it.

The Fireman’s Ball is a comedy (and extremely funny comedy) about a small town fire department who decide to throw a ball to honour of their chairman who is 86 years old and has just found out he has cancer. (Or rather everyone except him has just found out he has cancer).

During the ball, the committee is set the task of finding eight beautiful girls to enter a beauty pageant, the prize of which is being crowned Miss Fireman and presenting the Chairman with his gift. During a very funny series of events, the committee have a lot of trouble making a list of eight women, between differing opinions of beauty, parents trying to get their daughters chosen and reluctant girls.

As this is going on, the lottery prizes start to disappear from the display table. Joesef, the Fireman given the task of watching the prizes, finds that people are stealing them – and among those are his wife.  he spends the bulk of the film trying to find out who is stealing the prizes.

When the time for he pageant arrives, the girls decide they don’t want to be a part of it after all and lock themselves in the toilet. The committee decide the best course of action is to just grab any female and force her to stand on the stage. As this debacle takes place, the siren sounds and everyone pauses to find that there is a fire nearby. The firetrucks is stuck in snow, so the firemen are forced to throw snow onto the house and save as many of the old man’s possessions as they can. When this is over, everyone returns to the ball, only to find all the prizes are now gone, including the gift for the Chairman.

This is the first film Milos Foreman made in colour. It is filmed in the small town where the story takes place and is filled with real people playing all the roles, as per the hallmark of the Czech New Wave. One thing that must be said, is it is very funny. the foolish antics of the Firemen, the perpetual blundering made me laugh out loud and absolutely lasts the test of time. It’s controversy lies in the belief the sensors had at the time that the Firemen represented the Czech leaders of the communist party who mishandled the Prague Spring and allowed the Russians to storm into the now divided country and reclaim the sever socialism upheld in Russia. As I said above, although Milos Foreman claims this was never the case, given the context, he must have known what he was doing. There is a crucial moment when the man whose house has burnt the ground is given all the lottery tickets so that he can win the prizes that have all been stolen. He cries out, “but this is no good to me. I need money,” as the people congratulate themselves on their charity. It made me think instantly of the disenfranchised under communism.

It’s a beautiful film – like so many of the Czech New Wave, well worth the watching. I have a soft spot for the cleverness and the theatrical power of these films. the Fireman’s Ball deserves its place as one of the greats.