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Best known in America as the Academy Award-winning director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), Milos Forman originally gained recognition as part of the Czech New Wave. In the early 1960s, Forman directed a series of films in his native Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), including Black Peter (1964), Loves of a Blonde (1965), and The Firemen's Ball (1967), that helped establish the movement. Eastern Europe was still under control of the Communist Party when the Czech New Wave was launched, and filmmakers suffered censorship or worse if they disappointed or upset Party bureaucrats with their films. The Firemen's Ball aggravated authorities, and Forman's experiences with the film reflect this turbulent era of Czech film history.
Forman graduated from the scriptwriting program of FAMU, Czechoslovakia's state-supported film school, in 1954, but the doors to a film career were not opened until the early 1960s, when he directed two semi-documentaries about young musicians and singers. The slight stories served as an excuse for depicting the musical milieus that provided the backdrop and charm for the films. Forman used documentary techniques such as location shooting, deglamorized lighting, and nonactors in key roles to capture the milieus, and these documentary techniques would become hallmarks of his style. The two films were packaged under the title If Only They Ain't Had Them Bands.
Forman was 30, but he had a keen interest in the generation behind him. Rock 'n' roll had been introduced in Czechoslovakia in 1961, which helped galvanize the nation's teenagers into a generation decidedly different from its predecessors. The gap between generations was the central thread in Black Peter, his first feature film as a director. Black Peter aligned the young director with others who had caught the wave of liberalization surging through Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s that allowed them to make films of daring and innovation. Influenced by the subjectivity of the French New Wave and the documentary objectivity of cinema verite and Italian Neorealism, Czech directors worked within the bounds of these two influences. They used documentary techniques to create fresh-looking fictional narratives. Nonprofessional actors, improvised dialogue, gritty camera work, and keen observations of everyday life were combined with allegory and metaphor to produce highly personal filmmaking styles.
The acceptance of Black Peter into several film festivals, including the Locarno and New York Film Festivals, ensured that Forman would have a higher profile at Barrandov, the state-supported film studio. His next two efforts, Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen's Ball, expanded the style of Black Peter in combining documentary techniques with ironic comic moments and a keen eye for the lives of ordinary people. The Firemen's Ball was conceived when Forman and his co-scriptwriters Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papousek went to the mountain village of Vrchlabi so they could relax and concentrate on their next script. Taking a break one evening, they ended up at a celebration organized by the local firemen. Forman began to play cards regularly with the firemen on duty, and from these interactions, a new idea for a script was formed based on a firemen's ball.
The Firemen's Ball was shot in color, because financial backing by the highly respected Italian producer Carlo Ponti enabled Barrandov Studios to afford color film stock. Taking place in one location during the course of one day, The Firemen's Ball chronicles a local celebration in a small mountain village in Bohemia. The aging firemen's brigade decides to honor one of their long-standing members with a golden hatchet because he is dying of cancer. The hatchet will be awarded to him during a ball that includes a live band, an auction, and a beauty contest. While decorating the tatty ballroom with a beautiful, hand-painted sign, the young artist is knocked from the ladder by two doddering members of the fire brigade, destroying his unique handiwork in the process. The scene provides a hint of what is to come as the aging group of hapless, corrupt, and officious firemen cause more harm than good for their community.
The firemen and their brigade have been interpreted as a metaphor for the Communist Party, which was mired in self-serving bureaucracy. The firemen, who are the authority figures in the village, are old, sick, and corrupt. Nothing is accomplished because they argue among themselves, steal from their own organization, or establish absurd rules that hinder progress rather than facilitate it. Favoritism plays a role in the beauty contest, because some of the contestants are the daughters of prominent members of the brigade. Theft was rampant in Czechoslovakia under communism, which is illustrated in the film by brigade members who pilfer the items meant for the auction. As in Black Peter, a generation gap exists between the youth and the older generation in the village. The young men and women seem in a world of their own as they dance among themselves and paw at each other under the tables or in the corners. This is not an environment that is thriving or productive.
While the political climate in Czechoslovakia had opened up sufficiently to allow films like these to be produced and released, Forman and his fellow filmmakers still faced official disapproval and controversy, even as they attracted international attention and acclaim. For the film's original release, Forman shot an introduction in which he explained that the movie was not about firemen or any other specific group. However, certain lines of dialogue are clearly reflective of hard-line communist ideology, such as: "All the people are under suspicion." And, when the lack of honesty is brought up in relation to the theft of all the auction items, one brigade leader retorts, "The idea of the brigade is more important than my idea of an honest man," suggesting that the idea of communism is more important than its actual reality. Years later in an interview, Forman admitted that the firemen were indeed a metaphor for the Communist Politbureau.
The Firemen's Ball was first shown to the studio's censors and then to the top echelon of the Communist Party, including Czech President and Party leader Antonin Novotny. Party leaders were unhappy with the film but reluctant to ban it outright in the more enlightened environment of the mid-1960s. When it was shown to Carlo Ponti, he became furious and demanded that his initial investment of $65,000 be returned to him. Forman claims he was angry because he felt that the movie ridiculed the working man, but some have suggested that he was acting for the benefit of Novotny. Supposedly, Ponti was trying to negotiate a cultural treaty with Novotny and did not want The Firemen's Ball to sour the deal. Others claim that Ponti pulled out because the film was two minutes shorter than the running time stated in the contract. Whatever the case, the Party held Forman responsible for the money, and he was charged with sabotaging the socialist economy of Czechoslovakia. The director faced ten years in prison if convicted. Forman showed a print of the film to Francois Truffaut and Claude Berri, who graciously came up with $65,000 and gave it to Ponti.
The Communist Party then decided to screen the film to the public in the hopes that the citizens of Czechoslovakia would complain. If any of the Czech public were offended, the Party had a concrete reason to ban it. They screened the film in the village where it was shot, believing the nonactors used in the key roles would feel humiliated and ridiculed. According to Forman, the Party even arranged for a plant in the audience to raise an objection at the appropriate time. During the film, the man stood to declare that the characters of the firemen were offensive because they were not real. However, one of the actual firemen who had been in the film stood up to defend it, though that did little to help. According to the Party, 40,000 firemen had felt insulted by The Firemen's Ball, and they were forced to remove it from distribution.
In 1968 after reform leader Alexander Dubcek replaced Novotny, and the political climate softened further during what became known as the Prague Spring, The Firemen's Ball was finally released to theaters in Czechoslovakia. The film was shown in London and Paris, and it was also chosen to close the New York Film Festival. It would also be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. However, later that year, Soviet tanks entered Prague to squelch Dubcek's reform movement. When Soviet Communist Party leaders viewed the film, they banned it for life. According to Forman, The Firemen's Ball could not be completely destroyed, because Truffaut owned part of the film.
Forman wanted to make a film in America, and, based on the international acclaim of Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde, and The Firemen's Ball, Paramount Pictures offered him the chance to do so. Forman was in Paris working on a script when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. After the Soviet invasion, conditions in the Czech film industry tightened considerably. The Czech film industry was reorganized, centralized, and rigidly controlled.
Forman remained in Paris and the following year, he came to New York with Ivan Passer. The Paramount deal fell through, but Universal backed his first Hollywood film, Taking Off (1971). The film flopped at the box office, and Forman had some difficulty adjusting to Hollywood moviemaking, but his career was secured when he directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975. That was also the year he became an American citizen. Forman did not return to Czechoslovakia until the early 1980s, when he shot Amadeus there.
Producers: Rudolf Hajek; Carlo Ponti (uncredited)
Director: Milos Forman
Screenplay: Milos Forman, Jaroslav Papousek, Ivan Passer (screenplay); Vaclav Sasek (story)
Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Art Direction: Karel Cerny
Music: Karel Mares
Film Editing: Miroslav Hajek
Cast: Jan Vostrcil (Head of Committee), Josef Sebanek (Committee Member #2), Josef Valnoha (Committee Member), Frantisek Debelka (Committee Member #1), Josef Kolb (Josef), Jan Stockl (Retired Fire Chief), Vratislav Cermak (Committee Member), Josef Rehorek (Committee Member #4), Vaclav Novotny (Committee Member), Frantisek Reinstein (Committee Member).
by Susan Doll