The Firemen’s Ball (1967)

Directed by Milos Forman

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The Firemen’s Ball is a tragic farce told over the course of one eventful evening.  It concerns the ball organized by a group of inept firemen in honor of their former chairman, an 86 year-old man dying from a cancer he’s unaware he has.

When the film opens they sit around a table in a way that suggests bloated self-importance.  I don’t know what it is about crowded boardroom tables that make me think of proud incompetence, a group of characters fighting to be heard but collectively getting nowhere.  In this initial conversation they marvel at a ceremonial axe they will give to their former chairman.  One asks if they shouldn’t have given it to him the previous year.  Another says, ‘well he didn’t have cancer then.’  Another suggests that giving it to him only now, as he’s dying of cancer might reek of desperation.  Then one of them reminds them that he doesn’t know he has cancer, and then another questions why he’s not allowed to know he has cancer, and on and on.

The conversation goes around in circles in such a way that makes you wonder if they’re ever on the same page.  They are clueless and determined individually, but it’s as if they’ve never cooperated with anyone before and certainly never compromised.  Together they form a strange band of pompous civil servants who are utterly incompetent when it comes to actual firefighting (in one scene three of them fail to correctly use a fire extinguisher) and instead focus only on the pageantry their position in society affords them, at least for one night.

In the context of the broader world within this film, who knows what kind of authority the firemen have.  Maybe they’re mostly forgotten, at least until they’re needed.  That would suggest that the events of the Firemen’s Ball provides the only opportunity for them to be in control, to have any authority.  Milos Forman himself has suggested that it’s not hard to see this as an allegory…

“That’s a problem of all governments, of all committees, including firemen’s committees. That they try and they pretend and they announce that they are preparing a happy, gay, amusing evening or life for the people. And everybody has the best intentions… But suddenly things turn out in such a catastrophic way that, for me, this is a vision of what’s going on today in the world.”

The firemen of this film feel like a bunch of Michael Scotts (The Office [U.S.]).  They might mean well, but their actions are ultimately self-serving, and they go wrong immediately.  The group of old men here will spend most of their time accusing each other of stealing from the table of auction prizes, salivating over contestants in a beauty pageant (which none of them want to be in), and then struggling to put out a house fire in which they will toss snow onto the fire in an attempt to extinguish it.

That’s basically the entire movie right there, and it’s a delight.  The comedy is derived from their pure incompetence, pride and the ways they feud with each other, like siblings.  There are a series of almost episodic comedy routines, each one designed to further undermine their authority, until the entire ballroom has cleared out, all the prizes have been stolen, the old man who’s house burned down remains homeless and the axe to be awarded to the old man is suddenly missing.

That all leads to a final moment in which the firemen recognize their failure and see only the poor old, memory-challenged man sitting at a seat at attention.  They scurry back to their quarters, grab the ornamental box and march with pride as they deliver him the gift meant to be awarded by the winner of the beauty pageant which never took place.

They smile like children giving their father a present made in art class while the man opens up the box and sees nothing but the imprint of where the axe used to be.  Whether because, with whatever form of dementia he has, he doesn’t realize something’s amiss or simply because he doesn’t want to rain on their parade, he just smiles and doesn’t mention that the axe isn’t there.  It’s a surprisingly moving, albeit silly final beat, and it makes us regard the firemen as children, if we haven’t already.

It’s not that, as some sort of ruling body, they’re malicious, just that they’re incompetent, granted an authority they couldn’t possibly handle.

Up Next: The Exterminating Angel (1962), Ed Wood (1994), High Life (2018)

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