Sunday, July 13, 2008

I Laugh at Danger! Milos Forman and The Firemen's Ball

by Marilyn Ferdinand

I went to my dentist's yesterday. I’ve been seeing Dr. Hamilton for more than 25 years and always assumed from his accent and attire that he was German. I got a real surprise when he revealed that he was Czech and had grown up in Prague, a couple of blocks from the old city square, just around the corner from where Franz Kafka grew up. Naturally, I couldn’t believe the serendipity of learning my long-time dentist was Czech on the same day I planned to write my FOTM Club post on The Firemen’s Ball. We talked about Miloš Forman, and Dr. Hamilton related some fascinating film and moviegoing experiences he had had in Czechoslovakia. He said he had a great story for me:

There used to be a tank on a pedestal in Prague that was supposed to have been the first Soviet tank to move into the city to liberate it from the Nazis. “Naturally,” Dr. Hamilton said, “It was a propaganda lie. The Czechs rose up against the occupying Germans as Berlin was falling and drove them out themselves.” When he went back to Prague after a 25-year absence, he asked his cab driver if the tank was still there. “Oh no, that’s long gone,” the cabbie said. When the Communists were falling, the Czech citizens stole into the night and painted the tank pink. The Russians were so embarrassed, they took it down—pedestal and all!

I couldn’t have had a better picture of the Czech spirit, as explicitly captured in The Firemen’s Ball, if I painted it myself.

The Firemen’s Ball was the last film—and the only color film—Forman made in Czechoslovakia. The warm reception of his second full-length feature, The Loves of a Blonde, helped convince producer Carlo Ponti to provide the financing that made color shooting possible. Forman and his creative partners, Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papousek, holed up in a small Czech town to concentrate on writing the screenplay. After days of producing one bad scenario after another, the men decided to relax their minds at a firemen’s ball being held in the town that weekend. Afterwards, the ball was all they could talk about. Thus, The Firemen’s Ball was inevitable, and they were able to enlist many of the actual firemen and people in the town to appear in the movie.

When Ponti saw the film, he hated it so much that he exercised his right under his contract with the Czechoslovakian government to have his $65,000 returned. Forman faced 10 years in prison if he could not pay the government back; fortunately, he was able to show the film to Claude Berri and Francois Truffaut, and they paid his debt. Nonetheless, the government banned the film; it was unbanned for a few months in 1968 when Alexander Dubček came to power and then rebanned forever from its native screens—how absurdly Czech!

What was it about this film that Ponti and even the more relaxed Communist government of the 1960s so despised? It made fun of the proletariat! While there’s no question that the Czech people come in for some ribbing—donating raffle tickets for odd prizes that are slowly disappearing from a “guarded” table to a man who has just lost his home in a fire—the disorganized system of committee rule and the obedient functionaries of Communism are the main targets.

It’s not hard to see how the board of the firemen’s association is a stand-in for the Politburo that can’t bring order to chaos or basic goods and services to the people. Along with the party goers, we watch “Granddad’s” home blacken and burn because the fire truck is stuck in the snow; meanwhile, the capitalist ballroom owner walks through the crowd collecting on bar tabs and sets up a table from which to continue to sell drinks.

I am perhaps most intrigued by the 86-year-old former chairman of the firemen’s association who is to receive an award—a miniature, engraved axe—for his dedicated service over the years. It is to be presented by the winner of an impromptu beauty contest that, due to its runaway contestants, never takes place. The old man starts a straight, dignified walk toward the stage as the first contestant is called. He must be called back. He sits. He waits patiently as one disaster after another befalls the committee and the ball. At the very end, he alone remains in the trash-strewn ballroom. The committee hastily retrieves the box containing the award and decides to present it themselves. The old man moves forward, takes the box, and recites his carefully prepared and somewhat lengthy speech. When he opens the box, he finds the axe has been pilfered, too.

This old man is something of an enigma to me. He’s certainly the loyal Communist who comes up empty-handed in the end because of the of the system’s misshapen supply-demand curve. He’s also a leader blind to everything but his own role, the perfect bureaucrat in a broken chain, as well as a man (system) who is dying of cancer who has not been told he is ill. Finally, of course, he is an ordinary citizen who is degraded by the petty thievery of an item that can mean nothing to anyone else. This theft is both humorous—a raspberry in the face of the leadership—and a sad way for a fellow human being to be treated. Despite its high comedy, it’s no wonder the film has been called highly pessimistic.

The contemporary film movements from former Soviet Bloc countries—particularly Romania and Bosnia—identify with their traumas and open their veins. The Firemen’s Ball, though pessimistic, reflects the Czech sensibility characterized by an appreciation for the absurd, a howl of laughter in the face of danger. Forman, the only member of the Czech New Wave to have a highly successful career outside of his home country, has focused on some of his early concerns in other films (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ragtime, The People vs. Larry Flynt) but without the giggles. I hope Forman finds a tank in the near future that needs a new coat of paint.


Brian said...

Love the dentist's story! Your discussion of the film is reawakening memories from the film which had remained in a dusty corner of my head. Suffice to say, you've got me eager to revisit it, and having a few recent Romanian films in mind (including one that could be called a "pessemistic comedy": the Death of Mr. Lazarescu) might help me better understand both of these Eastern European "New Waves" a bit better, now that you mention it.

Ed Howard said...

This was an excellent choice, Marilyn. I loved it. It's hilarious and yet Forman's satire is so pointed and intelligent that he's continually pointing out the extent to which this isn't a laughing matter.

That's a great story that your dentist told you, too. It's very much in keeping with the spirit of this film, in which the people's messy, gleefully corrupt idea of collective action is in total conflict with the leadership's vain attempts to impose order.

Marilyn said...

Brian, Ed - Thanks for the vote of confidence, and I'm glad you liked my personal story. I agree, Ed, that it represents just what you describe about collective action in Czech society.

girish said...

Thanks, Marilyn, I enjoyed reading your post. My apologies: I've had a slightly hectic couple of weeks and didn't get a chance to rent and watch the film. If I manage to do so in the next few days, I will return to chat. Thanks again.

Beamer said...

Great choice. I probably wouldn't have seen this for years to come if not for the club.

I like your take on the former chairman here. It hadn't occurred to me to think of him as the representation of the "the loyal Communist who comes up empty-handed in the end," but it's right on. He's one of the most individual characters in the film to me, not falling totally in with the rest of the firemen and neither with the general crowd. His individuality in this is what makes the representation that you pointed out so strong.