Milos Forman's first color film, The Firemen's Ball, contains several shades of gray. A sensational comedy of mismanagement, the 1967 classic a fresh print of which screens at BAMcinématek from December 12 - 18 would become the director's final feature in his native Czechoslovakia. As such, it has become a post-mortem of his time there, but only for those who choose to read it that way. Forman didn't, but the country's communist government did; deriding the central plot of the titular festivity gone awry for "ridiculing the working man," officials banned it forever, prompting Forman's resettlement in America. Their loss was our gain, but the record on that accusation still needs to be straightened, because Forman clearly adored his subjects.
Shot in a remote North Bohemian mountain town, The Firemen's Ball stars real firemen from the local station, where Forman attended an actual ball and discovered both his cast and his story. As the middle-aged staff go through the motions with their annual ceremony, nearly everything goes wrong: Auction items get stolen, the underage beauty pageant participants develop stage fright, and in a stunning penultimate sequence a nearby fire forces their attention elsewhere. Forman establishes a tone of dark existential humor with the opening scene, when organizers discuss honoring their retired 86-year-old official and worry about the possibility that the gift will grimly acknowledge his recently contracted cancer.
With its consistent deadpan delivery (almost nobody smiles), The Firemen's Ball gently nudges its subjects until they finally loosen up in last few minutes. Hey guys, why so serious? Forman lovingly parodies all dysfunctional systems with much pomp and fanfare. It's an outlook that sums up his entire career, from the earlier hit Loves of a Blonde (which also features the comically-inspired imprecision of horny old men) to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (another clever potshot at self-interested authority figures).
Nevertheless, the Czech government hated a scene in which a fireman reveals his identity as one of the auction thieves. His colleague derides the penance: "The good name of the brigade means more than honesty," he asserts. Sure, you can read the sarcasm between the lines, but the delight of The Firemen's Ball partly involves its satiric range. Insert any metaphor into the disorganized scenario the Bush administration desperately seeking non-existent WMDs might have worked well a few years back or simply delight in the glorious chaos of a clueless world.