The Firemen's Ball (DVD)
A sly and powerful dissenting voice against the oppressive grip of the Eastern Bloc, the '60s Czech New Wave added a touch of bitter comic irony to a house style that was close to Italian neo-realism, with an emphasis on non-professional actors, natural lighting, real locations, and a vérité directness. The movement was abruptly disbanded in 1968, when the country's Soviet-led invaders halted production on many films, announced the permanent ban of four others, and prompted a few gifted filmmakers to emigrate to the West. The most famous of these was director Milos Forman, a gentle humanist and astute social critic who won Oscars for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, and paid homage to fellow subversives in The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man On The Moon. His growing discontent with his former life in Czechoslovakia is reflected in 1965's Loves Of A Blonde and 1967's The Firemen's Ball, two wry comedies that evolve from an implicit critique of government policy to an all-out drubbing of its corruption and ineptitude. A tender and beautifully observed story about the impossible odds of young romance, Loves Of A Blonde takes place in Zruc, a gray industrial town where dozens of women have been forced to relocate for work at a shoe factory. In an attempt to redress the gender balance, which stands at 16 women to each man, army officials place a regiment in Zruc, but the women are horrified to discover that the new arrivals are mostly middle-aged reservists with haggard looks and limited social skills. Still, the heroine, a dark-eyed and vulnerable wallflower played by Hana Brejchovoá, finds a healthy prospect in a handsome pianist (Vladimír Pucholt) who fiendishly twists her inexperience to his advantage. Hovering above Forman's sweetly empathetic character study is the implication that Brejchovoá is a casualty of the system, searching haplessly for love on infertile ground. The new DVD axes a superfluous scene found on most VHS copies (and available as a supplement here) that complicates the audience's sympathies while weakening the film's anti-authoritarian overtones. While Loves Of A Blonde is relatively subtle, nothing could be done to cover up the scabrous sentiments of The Firemen's Ball, which was "banned forever" for its paper-thin comic allegory about a social event unhinged by outrageous buffoons in uniform. Like the officials in Dr. Strangelove's War Room (though with nothing serious at stake), volunteer firemen bicker endlessly over the petty details of a commemorative ball for their retiring fire chief. Nothing goes right: The hand-picked contestants of a beauty contest are unattractive and stage-shy, the raffle prizes go missing one by one, and, irony of ironies, a raging inferno breaks out across town in the middle of the party. Forman dutifully insisted that the film had no double meaningsand, true to form, he was incapable of putting the firemen in an entirely negative lightbut censors and government officials were outraged, and he was forced to flee the country shortly after the Soviet takeover. Seen today, The Firemen's Ball holds up better as a historical document than it does as a screwball comedy, though its underlying sweetness helps to smooth over the more strident bits of slapstick humor. In a terrific interview on the DVD, Forman talks about the difference between making films in Czechoslovakia and in Hollywood. In the former, the pressures are ideological, and rely on "a few idiots" who determine political correctness; in the latter, the pressures are commercial, and rely on the audience's taste. As his career usually attests, Forman puts his faith in the audience.