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  Firemen’s Ball, The Burning HatredBuy this film here.
Year: 1967
Director: Milos Forman
Stars: Jan Vostrcil, Josef Sebánek, Josef Valnoha, Frantisek Debelka, Josef Kolb, Jan Stöckl, Vratislav Cermák, Josef Rehorek, Václav Novotný, Frantisek Reinstein, Frantisek Paska, Stanislav Holubec, Josef Kutálek, Frantisek Svet, Ladislav Adam, Jirí Líbal
Genre: Comedy
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: The firemen of this small Czech town have decided to pay tribute to their most elderly member, since he is 86 now and the rumour is going around that he is dying of cancer. Therefore a ceremonial axe has been created in its own presentation box which will be handed over to him, but they don’t feel they can simply do so in private, they have to make a show of things and set about holding a celebration. This will be a ball where they can have a raffle, there will be dancing, and how about a beauty contest into the bargain? What could possibly go wrong? Well, there’s an inkling of that when the raffle prizes are set out that afternoon and somebody steals the chocolate cake, somehow leading to the banner being set on fire and destroyed…

It’s just a chapter of accidents in director Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball, the film that simultaneously made his name outside Czechoslovakia and made sure he would not be welcome to make movies there ever again when it was banned by the Communist regime who justifiably suspected there was a degree of lampoonery in the themes and scenes of this. In fact, the portion of society most offended by the film, which was widely seen in its home nation as one of the prime works of the Czech New Wave, were the firemen, forty thousand of whom walked out of their jobs until Forman apologised and explained he was not making mockery of every fireman in the country, simply these particular characters.

But the authorities were not going to have the wool pulled over their eyes, even now it is simply too obvious that Forman and his team were mightily satirising their self-serving ways and thus he left his native land to seek his fortune in Hollywood, as many Eastern European filmmakers were forced to do when they were clamped down on, mostly thanks to the pressure from the Soviet Union who would tolerate no dissent. Watching it at this remove, it’s humour is so withering that you’re surprised the creators thought they could get away with anything so to the point, indeed, while there are chuckles and even the occasional hilarious moment, overall the tone was so scathing that the steeliness of its targeting was filled with something approximating an actual loathing.

There was no love for those in charge, represented by the firemen who in effect are paying tribute to themselves with their ball and strongarming the rest of the town to comply in a “you’d better be grateful for us!” sort of way. Therefore there is some satisfaction in seeing their every plan fall to pieces, their hubris the source of their downfall for as we perceive it, there is very little for any of them to be proud of: when there is a fire halfway through the ball, they are so useless (and drunk) that the old geezer’s house burns to the ground while the townsfolk look on helplessly. But the ball itself is no better, as witnessed in the most famous sequence where the beauty pageant is an absolute farce, throwing back the firemen’s lechery in their faces.

First, they leer over a magazine article of an international contest, complete with photo, imagining they will have the same success, but then they practically have to drag the contestants into a back room to audition, and find that among all they can muster, none of the town’s most attractive girls have any interest in competing. One seems keen, as she has her bikini on under her dress, offering a chance for the firemen to ogle her body in one of the most pathetic scenes ever filmed, but when the time comes for the ceremony to begin, in highly amusing fashion none of the girls is brave enough to take to the stage, resulting in a near-riot. To top it all, the raffle prizes gradually disappear from their table over the course of the evening, as the assembled think so little of their fellow attendees that they are happy to steal from charity for their own good. Nobody comes out of this looking flattered, as the sense of hatred Forman and company felt for their homeland was startling; The Firemen’s Ball may be a comedy, but it was also one of the most heartfelt “fuck you”s ever committed to celluloid. Music by Karel Mares.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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