The Firemen’s Ball [subtitled]

The Firemen's Ball

My previous experience with Czechoslovakian movies of the ’60s since I’ve been writing these pieces was Closely Watched Trains. I can’t say I got into this film all that much, but there’s no question I was less bored and lost compared to when I watched Closely Watched Trains.

I think the problem is similar though. To appreciate these films you have to be knowledgeable about the political situation in Communist Czechoslovakia of the 1960s, or you have to be good at picking up on subtle, symbolic, underneath the surface, satirical stuff, or preferably both. I admit I’m weak at the latter. I maybe have a little more knowledge of the former than the average layperson, but I don’t know it well by a long shot—probably something like 2% as well as the people who were living through it when this film was released over forty years ago, and for whom it was presumably intended.

Maybe they, and a few highbrow film critics from the West, can discern all the symbolic jabs being taken at the Communist regime, but the bulk of that goes over my head.

The Firemen’s Ball, from director Milos Forman tells the tale of a ball given in some provincial Czech town for the long-time local fire chief, who is now 85 years old and dying of cancer. The ball is organized and run by his fellow firefighters, and is well-attended by the townspeople.

Aside from the political stuff and just taken as a farce, I didn’t hate the movie by any means. I got some laughs from it, albeit less than from the average comedy. For some of the humor it’s no doubt a disadvantage to not be of that culture, but some doesn’t seem to lose as much in translation.

But basically everything goes wrong from start to finish. They almost burn down the hall early when they’re setting up for the ball. (They’re firefighters, hence the irony.) The various raffle prizes keep getting stolen. Their efforts to put together a makeshift beauty pageant from amongst the guests as entertainment comically falls flat for various reasons. While they’re all busy at the ball, a man’s house burns down nearby. And so on.

It’s not exactly the inspired mayhem of a Marx Brothers movie, but I suppose it’s very, very loosely of that genre. And as I say, there are some moments here and there that are kind of funny, like some of the stuff when they’re auditioning contestants for the beauty pageant.

Very early in the movie, the firefighters mention that no one has told the chief that he has cancer, and that in fact doctors are not allowed to tell patients that they have cancer, so as not to panic them and such.

And I wonder if that’s one of those symbolic things. Like that’s supposed to represent an authoritarian government lying to and withholding information from the public, allegedly for its own good and for the stability of the society.

Because as I thought about that, you could draw various parallels. Why would it be wrong, for instance, for a doctor to not tell a patient he’s dying?

One, the patient’s entitled to know vital information about himself. Two, the lie is largely going to be futile, since even if he doesn’t know all the details, it’s not like the patient isn’t going to be able to figure out that he’s sick and dying. Three, whatever the theoretical motivation for the deception is, in the real world it’ll function as a way for doctors to avoid responsibility or criticism by never letting it be said openly that there’s anything wrong with their patients. Four, if someone who’s supposed to be in a position of respect and authority can’t be trusted to communicate in an honest and straightforward way, it adds to an environment of deception and distrust in the society as a whole. And no doubt more.

Then just transfer that to government and citizen instead of doctor and patient. So lying or withholding information about the state of the economy, or the results of the recent harvest, or the popularity of various policies, or the degree of military success or failure, or the availability of consumer goods, etc., etc. would be wrong and futile for parallel reasons as when a patient can’t trust his doctor.

There are probably twenty things in the movie one could analyze like that (if I’m even right about this one, and there’s a good chance I’m not), but virtually all of them went over my head. It’s much more the exception than the rule that I can pick up on that stuff.

It’s interesting that if this is a way of trashing the Czechoslovakian Communist government, the people organizing this ball and the other folks in the movie are presented far more as figures of ridicule than evil. For the most part they’re not bad or scary people. They’re bumbling, but largely well-motivated. And whatever small scale pilfering the leaders do, whatever petty egos they display, whatever stupidity and general ineffectualness they manifest, is really not noticeably more or less than that of the regular people. Everyone’s tweaked in a good-natured sort of “Oh well, what are you going to do? We Czechs are a bunch of absurd folks after all” kind of way.

At least that’s how it comes across to me. Not exactly a stinging denunciation of the rulers specifically. Whether that’s a function of the limits of the satire that the filmmaker (Milos Forman) could get away with, or a function of my totally misinterpreting the movie, I’m not sure.

On the whole, The Firemen’s Ball is more watchable than Closely Watched Trains, it has a little more humor that I enjoyed, and I could figure out the political symbolism marginally better. But I wouldn’t say that the movie was a success for me in any of those three ways, just that it’s better than the movie it most resembles of the ones I’ve written about so far.

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