Saturday, 2 August 2014

1,001 Films: "The Fireman's Ball/Hori, Ma Panenko" (1967)

At the time of release, The Fireman's Ball landed like an especially droll bombshell in its native Czechoslovakia, much as its near-contemporary Lindsay Anderson's If... must have done in the UK, and Godard's Week-End did in France. Even today, you can still see what Milos Forman - at the beginning of a long, notable and mostly unblemished career that would eventually take him to Hollywood, and the Oscars - was getting at. Here was a filmmaker in a Communist state, walking that dangerously fine line between openly critical and slyly questioning; using the occasion enshrined in the title as a means of raising an eyebrow at the way his country had been taken over by committees and sub-committees that hadn't actually achieved anything.

The tone is set in a prologue in which a ladder gets fumbled (you had one job, firemen) and a mural commissioned for the event burns to a crisp (likewise), then watches amused as the raffle prizes are snaffled by unknown hands, a woman loses her pearls on the dancefloor, and a rebellion breaks out among the assembled masses. It's a fairly unsparing vision of what Czech society had become by 1967, but leavened by the wry sympathy Forman has for these people: he picks actors of tremendous character to portray this old guard as variously sottish, blustering, vain, klutzy, horny or grotesque, and shows them as more concerned with picking (and possibly fucking) the winner of the female beauty contest conceived as a centrepiece than they are with the cancerous colleague the event is meant to be honouring.

It builds towards a brilliant parable of the dependency Communism installed in its people, and the cold comfort it brought them: an old man is obliged to watch his house burning down, shuffled closer to the flames in a bid to keep him warm on this snowy night, and then denied entry to the ball for not wearing the right tie. Yet the reason the film has endured is that you wouldn't necessarily have to know anything of the Iron Curtain to find it funny. The idea of an institution being run by blithering idiots would require no translation for fans of Dad's Army; the withering use of triumphant brass band music now sounds like a precursor to Curb Your Enthusiasm; and it may well be the closest analogue the movies have ever given us to that universally applicable old joke about blokes who couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery.

The Fireman's Ball is available on DVD through Arrow Films.

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