The Fireman's Ball.3

What exactly does it mean for a film to be “banned forever”? Logistically impossible, the decision to ban a film “forever” says less about the content of a film and more about the government rubber stamping its seal of disapproval; banishment implies that those doing the banishing will be around long enough to keep the material out of circulation and tacking on the “forever” seems to imply that the government will be around just as long. The Czechoslovakian government was in the habit of limiting the release of films by New Wave directors and outright banning many films; only a handful had the distinction of being ‘shelved’ (banned forever), and some were never seen until the fall of Soviet Communism. Jan Němec’s A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) and Miloš Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball (1967) were two of these films: banned after the Soviet invasion of the country following the Prague Spring in 1968, each takes a distinct approach to the challenge of subversive critique.

A Report on the Party and the Guests begins with the “guests” of the title having a picnic in the woods. Before these well-dressed, middle-aged cosmopolitan types can make it to the titular birthday party, however, they run into a gang of men who round them up and lead them into a clearing. Huddled together, they watch as the men bring a desk and a chair into the clearing, taking the time to level the desk on the pebbles. Finally, a man approaches the desk, sits down, and tells them to spread out. What happens next resembles something better suited for a playground: Rudolph, the smug man at the desk, watches as one of his compatriots walks over to the confused men and women, digs his heel into the ground, and makes a “house” around the group. The only way out of the house is through the “door”: a gap between two rocks placed on the ground. Exasperated, one of the men in the group starts walking away, literally stepping over the line of the “house”. Rudolph chases after him, picking up pebbles and throwing them at the man. When that doesn’t stop him, the gang descends on the man, shoving him around as Rudolph steals the man’s handbag and starts cutting off the fringe with a pocketknife. When the host of the birthday party – Rudolph’s adoptive father – arrives to stop the “play”, the rest of the guests carefully exit through the “door.”

As with the rest of the film, the scene in the clearing is demonstrative of Němec’s approach to social critique. The overt metaphor of “stepping over the line” – and the consequences of even having a line – aren’t buried at all. The group is quick to turn on someone when that person messes up or says something contrarian, but they are just as quick to espouse the unity of the group. Things only escalate after this episode, culminating in a literal manhunt when one of the guests runs away.

Němec tried to obscure the inherently polemical nature of the film by calling it a “fable”, but the censors clearly read through his claims; in 1967, the National Assembly declared that the film had nothing in common with “our republic, socialism, and the ideals of Communism,” shelving the film and cementing its status as a clear critique of just that: Czechoslovak socialism and the “ideals” of Communism.

The Fireman's Ball. 7

While Němec approached critique under the guise of abstraction, Miloš Forman used the opposite approach, favoring satire in an equally biting challenge of Czechoslovak society. The Fireman’s Ball focuses on a group of provincial volunteer firemen who have organized a fairly elaborate ball for the town. There’s a beauty contest, which – of course – is judged by the firefighters, and a raffle for prizes displayed on a table in the hall. Naturally, both the beauty contest and the raffle fall apart, with the girls locking themselves in the bathroom when the contest begins and the prizes for the raffle progressively disappearing over the course of the night. The ball descends into chaos and is only stopped when a telltale siren is heard, calling the men to put out a nearby fire. The guests rush out to escape paying for their drinks and to watch as the house burns to the ground. As the firemen try desperately to extinguish the blaze with buckets of snow, the guests argue over how to orient a chair for the old man rescued from the house: do they turn the chair away from the fire so that he can’t see his home burning or do they turn it towards the fire to keep him warm? They eventually decide to make the man sit facing the fire, keeping him warm as most of his possessions go up in smoke.

Literally everything the firemen do in the film goes awry, often at the expense of others. While the beauty pageant is less damaging, the raffle winds up doubly depriving the old man whose house burned down. While he isn’t the only person deprived of a gift (the axe that is meant for the cancer-stricken honorary chairman of the committee is also stolen), the sting is far more pronounced. Instead of offering the old man a place to stay, food, or money, the guests collect their raffle tickets, and give them to the man. When the “winners” of the raffle are announced – and the lack of prizes realized – the firemen tell everyone that they are going to shut off the lights and let the thieves return the gifts. As the lights come back up, one of the firefighters – the man responsible for the table with all of the gifts – is seen trying to put something back.

While A Report on the Party and the Guests is fairly transparent in its critique, The Fireman’s Ball manages to mask its more biting jabs with comedy. The firemen are incompetent, provincial, and lecherous – traits that offended actual volunteer firefighters when the film was released – but relatively harmless. That is, until someone – the old man – gets hurt. Rudolph and his gang are immature, but they are also willing to take their games to extremes, and the end of film, in which the party’s host and guests load hunting rifles and try to track down the escapee with dogs, poses a clear existential threat to deserters. People are coerced into obedience, but are also completely willing to submit themselves to a ridiculous authority. A Report on the Party and the Guests focuses on systemic issues, while The Fireman’s Ball portrays the people who are, ultimately, ignored by the system. The Fireman’s Ball closes with the old man climbing back into his bed, surrounded by the remains of his house. He does the only thing he can: make the best of a ridiculous situation.