The Fireman's Ball. (12A)
Directed by Milos Forman. 1967
Starring Jan Vostrcil, Josef Sebanek, Josef Valnoha, Frantisek Debelka, Josef Kolb. In Czech with subtitles. Out on Blu-ray from Arrow Films on Oct 12th. 71 mins.
When reviewers talk about a classic foreign language movie being funny the expectation is that it will be laughing-on-the-inside funny. Milos Forman's last czech film is guffawing-on-the-outside funny. Indeed, there is one sight gag towards the end, involving the return of some stolen property, which is one of the funniest ever put on screen, right up there with Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.
A cadre of elderly firemen try to ensure that their annual dance goes off without a hitch but even the most basic tasks, like running a raffle or a beauty contest go hilariously wrong, mainly because the revellers refuse to submit to the prescribed methods of entertainment. Instead they drink like fishes*, pilfer anything that isn’t nailed down and run away giggling when asked to be in the beauty pageant.
(*One of the joys of the film is watching everybody carrying around these giant glasses of Czech lager with enormous white frothy heads.)
The film is one of the great landmarks of the Czech New Wave (Arrow are also releasing Closely Observed Trains on Blu-ray in a few weeks) but the joy of it is its universality. It all looks like footage of a 50s Butlins holiday camp or a working men’s club up north. The cast of non-professionals are just perfect and all seem to bear some semi-resemblance to British sitcom figures, without ever being exactly like them. Apart from the pompous, bald, fire chief, who is very Captain Mainwaring.
I like my satire like I like my dentistry, so light and painless you almost don’t know it’s happening, yet ultimately hugely effective. The film’s completion coincided with the events of The Prague Spring so although on the one hand it’s like an episode of “On No It’s Selwyn Frogitt!” made by a comic genius, you are always aware that it’s about much, much more than some dim witted, provincial, working men failing to organise a knees up.
The movie proved fateful for Forman. Due to an issue with the international financing he was out of the country in Paris when the Soviet tanks rolled in ’68 to crush the Prague Spring. He never went back and made his career in Hollywood with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before gradually moving into the realms of the Oscar Pleader. Cuckoo’s Nest is a great, great film, a Hollywood landmark, but if I were only allowed to keep one Foreman film for the rest of my life, I think I’d go with this one.
New 4K restoration by the Czech National Film Archive
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
Original Czech soundtrack in uncompressed PCM mono audio
Appreciation by Czech film expert David Sorfa
Archival interviews with director Miloš Forman, cinematographer Miroslav Ondíek and co-writer Ivan Passer
New Wave Faces: Michael Brooke salutes the non-professional actors who made an indelible impression on 1960s Czech cinema
Reversible sleeve featuring two pieces of artwork from the original release