Director: Milos Forman
Before cracking Hollywood with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Milos Forman made his name as a leading figure of the Czech New Wave with films like Loves of a Blonde and this, his first colour feature. It’s a wry and (for the most part) gently humorous piece in which the ball of the title – an annual event taking place in a small town – slowly descends into chaos, with brandy and cake mysteriously going missing from the raffle stall and the Miss Fireman beauty pageant that’s supposed to be the centrepiece of the evening turning into a shambolic non-starter thanks to the uncooperative local womenfolk.
The film has some sly things to say about how fragile and skin-deep social order and solidarity were in Soviet countries, and how little impact the communist experiment had actually had on human nature. All the same, it’s perhaps hard now to recapture the mindset in which The Fireman’s Ball might have seemed imbued with subversive political meaning, especially for a British audience who are more likely to see echoes of Local Hero, On the Buses and Dad’s Army in the way the cast of amiably incompetent, grey-haired buffoons top off one bad idea with another as various problems confront them. Yet the warmth and charm of the film come through, as does the skill of the director in sustaining a naturalistic, ensemble-led aesthetic, while also pulling off a few well-timed gags. 7/10
The 4:4 aspect ratio film stock isn’t exactly a thing of beauty, but the transfer is very good, with no grain or dirt and plenty of detail in textures of clothes and the shiny grain of wooden tables burdened with beer glasses. A long shot of the crowded hall towards the end, with heads clustered closely together, is particularly striking for its vivid flesh tones and sense of depth. The audio track is also very crisp, with the brass band background music clearly separated from the dialogue. 8/10
33-min piece by David Sorfa on Forman’s career, with interesting info about his collaborators and early reactions to his film, although some of the critic’s comments about the theme of performance and pretence in The Firemen’s Ball seem rather laboured. ~ 31-minute video essay by Michael Brooke about the use of non-professional actors in Czech New Wave films (with some nice clips). He talks about the backgrounds of some of these actors and the methods Forman and others would use to capture their performances. ~ 11-min interview with Forman from 2011, in which he explains how he stumbled upon the idea for the film when he attended a real-life firemen’s ball. ~ 6-min interview with scriptwriter Ivan Passer, who tells the same story and trumps it with another about toiling over a screenplay for Carlo Ponti in a castle in Italy without furniture. 9/10