Forman can be accused of many things, but dumb is not one of them. In the opening shot you see couples floating to an awful rendition of the Beatlesí From Me to You, and you know right away youíre looking at a comedy of provincial mores. For East Europe in 1967, make it tenfold provincial.
So the "chairman" of the local fireman brigade is retiring, and his colleagues decide to throw him a party, plus raise some money in a charitable lottery. Small-town Czech firemen are anything but our larger-than-life 9/11 heroes: these overweight middle-aged men use their picks and shovels to toss snow at a burning house, rather than dash into the blazes of fire. But they are determined to throw a good party, with a beauty contest as its high point. The winner will present the retiring chairman with a miniature silver fireman axe in an elegant case.
The resulting farce is at once the bitterest and the sweetest comedy you will ever see. The closest American equivalents would probably be Waiting for Guffman and First in Show, though the farce in these two, made by professional comedians, is more deliberate, with the Comedy label showing. Forman is subtler and more cosmopolitan. Most of all, our firemen are confused: they look at some worn picture of bikiniíd Miss World contestants (now touching in its wholesomeness) and try to select the local equivalents. The local beauties are literally dragged into competing; once they show up, the old geezers have no idea what to do next Ė especially when a distrustful mother of one of the girls shows up and wonít leave. For lack of a better idea, they march the girls around military-style. The girls, whose plainness is matched only by the ugliness of their outfits, can barely stifle their laughter, but they march obediently. This is a small town in pre-1968 Czechoslovakia, where feminism is a foreign word -- though at the end they refuse to go onstage.
Little by little, the embarrassment builds up, until even the modest pickings of the lottery get stolen, including headcheese and chocolate balls. Finally, do you think that the retiring chairman got his silver axe? Hah. In the interview that accompanies the film on DVD, Forman sounds harsh on his thieving countrymen and claims that his film is a metaphor for the entire corrupt, incompetent Socialist system. It is certainly a legitimate reading: "Reputation of our brigade is more important," says one of the bosses, "than your stupid honesty." Remarks like these could not possibly clear the Czech Kultural Komissariat, who in the wake of the Soviet invasion had no choice but to ban the film.
But a mere political metaphor would not hold up as well as Firemenís Ball has. The Wall collapsed, Czechoslovakia fell apart, and the new Czech Republic not only has a McDonalds on every corner, but an acclaimed poet and playwright for a president. And Firemenís Ball survives, as the best Hymn to Incompetence and Mediocrity and Petty Thievery and other human weaknesses ever made.
Loves of a Blonde is Formanís earlier effort, one that was a huge success with Czech audiences and really put his name on the map. It is easy to see why: his treatment of relations between sexes in general and sex in particular was as revolutionary in Czechoslovakia as I am Curious was in the West. The part of the film that relates to the former has aged well: the awkwardness shared by both men and women on the verge of social and sexual contact makes for a delightful comedy of mores that, frame for frame, is as good as The Firemenís Ball (the two share a good deal of acting talent).
Forman is never a didactic pedagogue; he understands that the most biting social comment can be conveyed even more effectively through the most inventive gags. Three guys at a dance send a bottle of wine to three girls. The waiter delivers the bottle to the wrong table with the wrong three girls. I dare any Hollywood director of Something-about-Mary school of comedy to get as many laughs and at the same time derive as much humanity from a simple setup like this.
Yet once the film leaves the social setup and goes into one-on-one sad story of one of the girls (Hana Brejchova, the blonde who went on to become the national It Girl) who hooks up with a handsome piano player, the story becomes far more predictable: Seduced-and-Abandoned as played out in a middle-class Socialist family.
The two films are essential viewing for any film aficionado, especially with an interest in Mr. Formanís oeuvre. In Hollywood, he went further than any Eastern European director, with two Oscars (One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest and Amadeus). In the above-mentioned interview on the DVD, Forman pontificates about the superiority of the market system of film-making to the Socialist ideology-based one. Alas, not everything is so black-and-white as le maitre would have us believe: in the last years of Communism, the studios paid attention to high box-office receipts, and we donít need to be told how politically correct a film with a megabudget has to be. But real cinema, like Firemenís Ball, will survive both censorship and lack of box-office receipts.
The Fireman's Ball and Loves of a Blonde are now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. Both films are presented in new digital transfers. And both DVDs include a video interview with director Milos Forman. The Fireman's Ball includes a behind-the-scenes look at the transfer process, featuring cinematographer Miloslar Ondricek and including comments from Milos Forman. Loves of a Blonde includes a deleted scene. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each. For more information, check out Criterion Collection Web site.