10 things to love about “The Firemen’s Ball”

On Monday, January 23, 2016, a special screening of Milos Forman’s 1967 masterwork The Firemen’s Ball will be taking place at Nun’s Island Theatre (Galway, Ireland). The screening, which will kick off at 8 p.m., will mark the beginning of a new film series that will celebrate classic and contemporary international arthouse films, titled “CineCola Screenings.” It will also bring many great films back to a theatrical space, for a totally different viewing experience. (To purchase tickets for the Galway screening, click here.) To get you in the mood for The Firemen’s Ball event, here are 10 great facts about the film.

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IT WAS BANNED “PERMANENTLY AND FOREVER”

The Firemen’s Ball was one of the four films banned by the Communist authorities of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1968. The film was liberalized during Prague Spring, but immediately withdrawn from cinemas as soon as Soviet tanks invaded the country again. Forman’s film remained banned in the country until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

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IT’S HILARIOUS!

The Firemen’s Ball was one of Roger Ebert’s favourite films. In his review of the films, written many years after its release, he wrote: “The Firemen’s Ball hasn’t dated as entertainment; Forman doesn’t push his political points, being content to let them make themselves, unfolding gracefully from the human drama. The movie is just plain funny. And as a parable it is timeless, with relevance at many times in many lands.”

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IT USES NON-ACTORS

Forman was attracted to cinema’s ability of capturing the realities of everyday life. His first feature was a semi-documentary, Auditions (1964). The casts of his Czech films are largely non-professional. In his book, Turnaround, Forman explained that non-actors “simply can’t do things they don’t instinctively feel right.”

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STORYLINE ORIGINS

Forman had imagined making a totally different film before landing in a small Czech village named Vrchlabi with his writing team. One night, with nothing better to do, they decided to attend an event organized by the local fire brigade. This immediately inspired a screenplay that “practically wrote itself,” and materialized as The Firemen’s Ball – which was shot in Vrchlabi with many of the attendants and volunteer firemen from the village as its actors.

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ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATED

The Firemen’s Ball landed Forman his second Academy Award nomination after receiving one for The Loves of a Blonde (1965). The success did not stop the premiere of Forman’s American movie debut, Taking Off (1971), being attended by only eight people. But in later years, Forman would receive great acclaim for his future works, including two Best Director Oscars – for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus.

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TRUFFAUT/BERRI

Besides angering the Stalinists in Czechoslovakia, The Firemen’s Ball managed to anger Italian mogul Carlo Ponti, who co-financed the film. He saw Forman’s film as poking fun at the “Common Man,” which was not good for business. He was able to demand his money back thanks to a contract clause that had ensured him a finished product at least 75 minutes long, while Forman’s version was, in fact, 73 minutes long! Thankfully, French producer Claude Berri, under the advice of Francois Truffaut, loved the film and bought the rights for the movie, which became an international success.

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FIREMEN AS KEYSTONE KOPS

The Firemen’s Ball is noted for not having a true leading character. It is a comedy about an event more than any singular person. But the thing that cannot be ignored is the depiction of the firemen as comedic figures ala Keystone Kops of the slapstick comedies of old. In order to ensure the commercial failure of the movie, Communist authorities organized its first Czechoslovak public screening in Vrchlabi, where it had been shot, in front of its firemen. This, they hoped, would outrage the very same people who had acted in it…but they reportedly greatly appreciated the show and laughed the whole way through the screening.

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CZECHOSLOVAK NEW WAVE

Forman is one of the most important filmmakers of what is known as the Czechoslovak New Wave, one of the most influential periods in film history, that reached its peak during the 60’s. While the official artform of Socialist countries of the time was Socialist Realism, a cinema that promoted Communist ideals, the Czechoslovak New Wave sought to question these ideals in stories, form and structure. While these works were deemed controversial, they were not stopped outright by Communist authorities because of the international acclaim they received. On the other hand, in Czechoslovakia, many of them were blacklisted outright after 1968. (See also the works of Vera Chytilova, Ivan Passer, Jiri Menzel etc.)

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BIG SCREEN EXPERIENCE

One of the delights of watching The Firemen’s Ball on the big screen is that it flatters the outlook of what was Forman’s first colour movie ever. Besides this, the director’s style in this film makes use of wide shots where, in many sequences, he allows the viewer a certain freedom to choose to spot to focus on. This effect is partially lost on the small screen.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY MILOS!

Milos Forman turns 85 on the February 12. The Firemen’s Ball was the last film he made in Czechoslovakia. He decided to leave the country and pursue a career in the United States, where despite his previous acclaimed works, he found himself living at the Chelsea Hotel on a one dollar a day allowance with six months’ rent overdue. It all paid off in the end. Besides being a multi-Academy Award winning filmmaker, he has directed such great works as Hair (1979), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and Man on the Moon (1999). After leaving Czechoslovakia, he only returned almost 20 years later, when he shot Amadeus (1984) in Prague.

The Firemen’s Ball is screening at Nun’s Island Theatre in Galway, Ireland on January 23. To buy the tickets to the film, click here.

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