The Firemen's Ball
Every decade seems to offer its own regional film renaissance. If the late '50s belonged to France, then Germany dominated the '70s. But in the mid '60s it was Eastern Europe that swept through the film festivals and art houses. At the forefront of the Czech new wave was Milos Forman. His best film from his Czech phase is The Firemen's Ball (Hori, má panenko). Shot in mid-1967, the film was banned in 1968 in its home country "for all time" by the Communist bureaucracy after it played for a few weeks near the end of Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring. Today, it's difficult to see why The Firemen's Ball was so irritating to Party officials. After all, the film, written by Forman, Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papousek, only tells the simple story of a volunteer fireman's unit in a small town striving to throw a party to honor their retiring, elderly commander (Jan Stöckl), who has been diagnosed with cancer. Almost the whole movie takes place at the ball itself, and follows three narrative threads. Josef (Josef Kolb) has been placed in charge of the raffle prizes, but under his befuddled watch they start to disappear, a head cheese even pilfered by his wife (Milada Jezková). Meanwhile, the firemen are having trouble gathering candidates for a beauty contest, the embarrassed girls all fleeing to the bathroom. When a fire breaks out in the house of another elderly citizen (Frantisek Svet), thanks to snow and other impediments the firemen can only watch helplessly as the huge house burns to the ground. An attempt to cheer up the victim by arranging to have him win some of the raffle prizes backfires when it turns out that the coveted items have all disappeared. The Firemen's Ball is quietly hilarious in its dismantling of misguided do-gooderism. But the film's mockery of indecisive bureaucracy is more universal than a simple attack on Communist inefficiency. The tale just happens to be set in a society that put a misguided premium on efficiency. The Criterion Collection has done a marvelous job with its newly restored DVD version of The Firemen's Ball. The disc features a beautiful full frame (1.33:1) transfer of the movie, supervised by cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. The Firemen's Ball was Forman's first color film, and his initial nervousness about the process was allayed when Ondricek arranged to purchase good color stock from the west, the investment made possible by producer Carlo Ponti, who unfortunately pulled out after he saw the finished film. According to the box, the new digital transfer was "mastered from a 35mm interpositive," from film elements housed in Czechoslovakia, the procedure observed by Ondricek. It's an impeccable, beautiful transfer, marred only by a vertical black scratch when Josef is first shown approaching the table of raffle prizes. Audio is Dolby Digital 1.0, but sounds fine. The box also announces new and improved subtitles, credited to Mark Valenta and Suzanna Halsey. Supplements include a 15-minute video interview with Forman and a four-minute account of the film's restoration, featuring a brief interview with Forman and footage of Ondricek going over the print transfer. Included is a six-page booklet with cast and credits and an essay by Village Voice movie reviewer J. Hoberman. Color bars. Keep-case.