If there could ever be a crossover between cinema vérité and slapstick comedy then it is Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball. There is a scene in this film where the firemen are pointing towards a woman, and as they point we see two point of view shots of two different women, this is explanatory enough to tell us that in whichever direction Milos Forman was pointing, it is up to our point of view what we want to see, be it a satire or an allegory. Now The Firemen’s Ball is considered to be a satire on the communist regime of its time in Czechoslovakia but even if we keep the history and the symbolism aside and simply take the film on its face value, it is still a pretty captivating account of human nature.
Hossain Sabzian in Kiarostami’s Close-up says 'who knows what fate will bring tomorrow, one can’t even know what lies ten minutes ahead'. This is precisely the gist of The Firemen’s Ball. Now we could plan as much as we like, but catastrophes always occur without warnings and then every plan falls flat on its face. Milos Forman’s viewpoint for this phenomenon is rather sardonic, he makes firemen (who are supposedly alert citizens) plan an event without having them the slightest notion of a possible disaster. Towards the beginning there is a scene where a firemen standing atop a ladder is scorching the sides of a banner, however a little accident takes place and the whole banner catches fire, the firemen including the retired chief try to extinguish it but the extinguisher malfunctions and the banner turns to ashes. This is a perfect precursor to the rest of the film, foreshadowing the bizarre events to follow. The Firemen’s Ball is made up of such small anecdotes that lead to a big event which further leads to the most outrageous fiasco.
The film begins with a close shot of a miniature axe that moves from one hand to another as the camera follows it. We look at the intricacies of the axe, the design, the etchings but little do we know that it would be one of the root causes for the final disaster. The axe is meant to be a memento which is supposedly presented to the 86 year old former chief (though it should’ve been presented to him the previous year on his 85th birthday) and it can’t be delayed any further for the chief unbeknownst to himself has been diagnosed with cancer (in its advanced stage). Now a prestigious moment like that deserves a ceremony and so they decide to have a beauty pageant wherein this axe could be presented by the beauty queen. Unfortunately towards the end of the film, none of this could actually be achieved. The plan flops as none of the girls wants to be part of the pageant, the prizes arranged for a raffle draw are all stolen and so is the miniature axe, and a nearby barn catches fire which the firemen are unable to extinguish.
The film even though being fairly slapstick looks very real. With a mostly non-professional cast, we feel like being a part of a real ball. The camera moves within the party like an observant guest looking around at the party folks. We get a feeling we might get nudged anytime by those dancing clumsily in that crowded hall. The portrait shots looks like taken for a documentary. These are real people with real smiles, dancing the real dances and having a real blast. Every sequence plays out like a vignette and all of them when put together with some brilliant editing makes for the entire party sequence which forms a large part of the film. The most natural of the performances comes from the group of old beer-sodden firemen who have their own lecherous purpose to serve as they plan the beauty contest. They look like any other bunch of oldies relentlessly arguing over something or other, and they have played their part so cheerfully, especially when they rummage across the crowd for beautiful faces but are never successful in convincing because they could never hide their perverse intentions. The crowd too looks very natural and at any instance doesn't seem staged, especially where they try and force the replacement candidates to go on stage. Of course most of this feeling of realism comes from the cinematography which is particularly candid.
As stated in Murphy’s law, if anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The search for beauty contestants ends hopelessly, the few candidates who turn up doesn’t meet the expectations but are nonetheless considered. The brass band plays a tune as the crowd awaits for the beauty queens to grace the stage, but the tune ends and the stage is still empty, they start playing the same tune again. When a fire breaks out, the fire engine is stuck in snow. The old man whose barn catches fire, wistfully looks at his house going up in flames. The onlookers in order to turn his eyes away from this misfortune turn his chair towards the opposite direction, the old man however can’t help but keep turning back to look at the smoldering ruins. Amidst all this, the drinks are served uninterruptedly. The lottery prizes are all pilfered, including by those guarding it. One of the old firemen is caught while trying to return the purloined headcheese, which in turn sparks a debate that prestige is far more important than truth.
The film doesn’t have a pessimistic view but a rather realistic one, it is not about these disasters but about humans reacting to volatile situations. We often carry the futile notion of being in control of situation, of being the governors of our surroundings only to be dumbfounded upon realizing our vulnerability. If the communist regime banned this film during its time, it was possibly because they could read this idea of helplessness conveyed through the film. Even if we look at the larger picture for a moment, we would realize that our organised society isn’t really ready if any such catastrophe takes place, and history has proved it now and again. The Firemen’s Ball even though bitter in its subject puts up an entertaining façade and perhaps that is the only way to go about it, to smile hoping that such catastrophes would never occur.