The story of Milos Forman’s “The Firemen’s Ball” (1967)

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At the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia had been dominated by the Soviet Union. The country’s official art, like that of other Socialist countries, was Socialist Realist, a not-so-subtle propagandist movement that aimed to glorify Communist ideals through the use of realistic imagery. Artworks that did not fit into this category were inspired by surrealism, Dadaist and other non-conformist artistic movements. In cinema, the authenticity of documentary filmmaking also became an influence. Although these works were often attacked by the Communist party, that criticized, censored and in some cases prosecuted its creators, the Czechoslovak New Wave came to rise as a popular and influential period of world cinema and reached the peak of its powers in its late period, the 1960’s. Milos Forman is considered one of its most important filmmakers.

Milos Forman, who came to the fore at this time, is considered one of the greatest filmmakers of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Born on the 18th of February, 1948, Forman was first drawn to the world of theatre before entering that of filmmaking. His Czech films in particular reveal that one of the main things that drew him to cinema was its ability to reveal the truth of the everyday life with more authenticity than any other art-form thanks to its photographic roots. Indeed, Forman started his career as a documentary filmmaker with his 1964 feature Auditions, about a talent competition. This early work also exposed the influence of American music in the cultural scene of Czechoslovakia at the time. Forman continued to blend the lines between reality and fiction in his future works by casting non-actors in their leading roles. In his book, Turnaround, Forman explained that non-actors “simply can’t do things they don’t instinctively feel right.”

During the 1950’s and 1960’s the Czech film industry was nationalized and agreed to finance the works of a new, younger generation of film directors. Forman’s first two fiction features, Black Peter (1964) and The Loves of a Blonde (1965), are represent the realist branch of the Czech New Wave to perfection. Both films are humorous but also marked by an authenticity that reveal the underwhelming realities of young people being robbed of youthful pleasures. Forman films scenes of boredom, flatness, dissatisfaction, frustration and disenchantment. Both films were also criticized by the Communist Party because of their less than idyllic depiction of life in Czechoslovakia. But they put up with it, like many other films of the Czech New Wave, because the success they were greeted with internationally also helped promote a more libertarian image of Socialism abroad. Forman’s films were particularly successful: Black Peter won the top prize at the Locarno Film Festival in 1964 and The Loves of a Blonde was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967.

The popularity of the new generation of Czechoslovak filmmakers began to attract foreign investment. Forman was at the forefront of this generation and was approached by Italian producer Carlo Ponti for his next project. Ponti had worked with such innovative filmmakers as Vittorio De Sica, Andrzej Wajda and Jean-Luc Godard before, but the success of his 1965 production of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) definitely helped in awakening his interests in initiating co-production with Central and Eastern European Socialist countries. Forman began working on the screenplay for his next project with Josef Papousek and Ivan Passer in Vrachlabi, a small Czech town in the mountains. One night, with nothing better to do, they decided to attend a ball the local fire brigade was throwing. The three writers were so inspired by the atmosphere that they decided to scrap whatever they had been working on and develop what eventually became The Firemen’s Ball.

This film was to be a comedy produced by Barrandov, the largest film studio in the country and one of the largest in Europe. Ponti agreed to invest $80,000 in the project and gave the director access to colour film stock, which was extremely rare for a Czechoslovak film at the time. So, The Firemen’s Ball was to be Forman’s first colour film. Once again, there wasn’t one professional actor in the fact. The film was shot in Vrchlabi and featured the people from the village in the main roles. The volunteer firemen had full-time jobs at the local factory. They got up at five in the morning, punched in at six, punched out at two, went home, ate, changed clothes, and reported to the movie set. They started shooting at four in the afternoon and worked till ten or eleven at night, day in and day out, for seven weeks. When filming wrapped up, Forman began worrying about the lack of a central character for the audience to identify with in the film. The Firemen’s Ball is all about one event, rather than one person, and takes place during the course of the titular ball. It’s impossible not to see the ball as a microcosm of sorts, and the lack of a central heroic figure forces the spectator to look at the collective and reflect upon the film’s satirical observations. But was the film originally meant to carry a political message? Forman stated: “I didn’t want to give any special message or allegory. I wanted just to make a comedy knowing that if I’ll be real, I’ll be true, the film will automatically reveal an allegorical sense. That’s a problem of all governments, of all committees, including firemen’s committees. That they try and pretend and they announce that they are preparing a happy, hay, amusing evening of life for the people. And everybody has the best intentions. And everybody is prepared to be happy, to help. But suddenly, things turn out in such a catastrophic way that for me, this is a vision of what’s going on today in the world.”

The film was completed near the end of 1967. Around this time, Czechoslovakia was at a socio-political turning point, and the period of liberalization that the country had experienced in the preceding years would result in what became known as the “Prague Spring.” A number of factors contributed to “Prague Spring.” Significantly, a committee to investigate on the prosecutions, trials and executions of several Czech diplomats and politicians from 1949 was established during an apparently conformist Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1962. This exposed uncomfortable truths about the Party’s influence on the running of Czechoslovakia. “Prague Spring” officially began on January 5, 1968. On this date, the reformist Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. His reformist policies attempted to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia, and included a loosening up of restrictions on the media, speech and travel. “Prague Spring” threatened to expose the heavy role placed by Soviet security forces and Czechoslovak were bursting with a desire to reclaim their own country.

The case of The Firemen’s Ball illustrates how cinema benefited from the shift in political power . The film was first commercially released three weeks before the appointment of Dubcek as First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. President Novotny, along with the Communist Party at large, was outraged by the film. In order to ensure the film’s disastrous outcome, the Party set up the first public screening of the film in the town in which it was shot, thinking that the same firemen that had appeared in the film might be shocked by their representation as drunks, Keystone Kops-like comedy figures with shaky political and social morality. But the audience at this screening greatly enjoyed the screening and laughed the whole way through it. The staunchest Communist Party representatives, still manoeuvred by Stalinist figures, was powerful enough to eventually turn the Union of Fire Brigades against Forman. Despite all this, they may have overlooked the film’s allegories because of its potential to bring the national treasury some hard currency from abroad. Here lies a most formidable and paradoxical feat by The Firemen’s Ball. Ponti, it seems, was just as angry with Forman and wanted all his money back. He was able to confidently threaten with a breach of contract. Forman had overlooked a stipulation that guaranteed that his final cut of the film would be at least 75 minutes long. His final version of The Firemen’s Ball was, in fact, 73 minutes long. In reality, Ponti hated the film because he felt it mocked the Common Man, which was no good for business. So, The Firemen’s Ball had somehow managed to anger both the Communists and the capitalists. Ponti’s hostility allowed The Party to ban the film outright by the end of 1967. But after Dubcek was elected early the following year, the film was re-released all over Czechoslovakia and became very successful.

The Firemen’s Ball continued screening in Czechoslovakia until the Soviet tanks invaded the country. Dubcek and other leading reformists were taken to the Soviet Union and on the 21st of August 1968, they were forced to sign a treaty that stopped all the “Prague Spring” reforms under extreme psychological pressures. This marked the end of “Prague Spring.” Once again, The Firemen’s Ball was pulled out of the cinema and blacklisted. It was locked in a safe at Barrandov Studio, where it became one of the four Czechoslovak features to have been banned “permanently and forever.”

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Ponti’s hostility had made matters worse. Forman did not have the money to pay the producer back and so he reached out to French producer Claude Berri, who loved the movie and agreed to pay the money back. The Firemen’s Ball won great acclaim from other top international filmmakers, including Francois Truffaut, and the endorsements it received allowed it to be the closing film of the New York Film Festival in 1968 and earn Forman another Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Language film. Back in his home country, however, Forman, like many other of his contemporaries, was faced with a major crossroads – should he leave his homeland, or should he stay? The decision, as it turned out, was not so difficult for him to make. Czech Filmexport had negotiated a contract with Paramount Pictures and Forman headed to the States to make his first film for them. Eventually, Forman made his English language debut, and his first American movie, for Universal – Taking Off (1971). He would only return to Czechoslovakia almost 20 years later, to film Amadeus (1984), an American production, in Prague.

The Firemen’s Ball would therefore be his final Czech film. It also remained unseen in Czechoslovakia until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 – but it was also one of the first infamously blacklisted films to be re-released in Czech cinemas. As Forman explained, though the film was banned for “all time,” “all time” is never forever. “It denotes a longer or a shorter period, depending on the fortunes of those who lay down the ban.”

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