Hoří, má Panenko (1967)

Or, in English, The Firemen’s Ball.

I came across this film some months back, and since its description sounded enticing, I got it. Ever since, I’ve been meaning to watch it; finally, about a week back, having written up the post for a landmark anniversary I wanted to celebrate (William Holden’s birth centenary), I figured it was finally time I got around to watching The Firemen’s Ball. And it was then, just a few days back, that I discovered that the film’s director, Miloš Forman, had passed away, on the 13th of April.

To Hollywood audiences, Forman is known for Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, both of which won him Oscars for Best Director. But before he left his homeland Czechoslovakia and moved to the US, Forman was a well-established director in Czech cinema too, being generally acknowledged as a important personality of Czech New Wave Cinema. His first Czech-language colour film was The Firemen’s Ball, a comedy that satirized the corruption pervading Communist Eastern Europe at the time.

The film begins sombrely. In an office at a fire department, a group of senior firemen have gathered to discuss something important. A finely crafted and engraved piece (a fireman’s axe) is being passed around the table and admired by all. The annual firemen’s ball is coming up, and this item is to be presented on the occasion of the ball to the fire department’s ex-President, who is going to be turning 86.

Sadly, it’s been discovered that the old gentleman has cancer. The head of the committee (Jan Vostrcil) sternly advises everybody to not mention the cancer, but arguments crop up: what if the ex-President himself doesn’t know? What if the doctor hasn’t told him? What if he does know, and thinks they’re giving him this souvenir now because later it might be too late?

They eventually decide not to mention anything. As it is, nearly all of them are too busy preparing for the ball, which is to be held that night in the large hall on the ground floor.

What happens in the next few minutes gives one an idea of how this ball is going to play out.

Josef (Josef Kolb) has been put in charge of safeguarding a table that’s loaded down with gifts for the raffle: there are various odds and ends here, ranging from stuffed toys to chocolate cakes, head cheese, and bottles of brandy. Josef has been away just for a while, and comes back to find that a cake has vanished.

While the ex-President (Jan Stöckl), who’s already arrived, looks benevolently on, Josef goes and loses his temper at a colleague who’s steadying a ladder. Up that ladder, singeing the edges of a banner (lending it an artistic touch) is the artist. Josef’s colleague denies Josef’s accusation that he stole the cake (or even knows where it went); he can’t move from here, the ladder will fall down if he does. An argument erupts between the two of them, and in the process, the man lets go of the ladder.

For a moment or two, the ladder stays in place. Then it crashes, leaving the artist—who’s quick to grab onto a rod—dangling. Josef and his colleague are busy fighting it out, the artist is yelling that he’s going to fall, he’s going to fall—and finally they hear him. By then, the fire along the edges of the banner has spread, and the banner’s pretty much in flames. The firemen (including the ex-President) rush off to get a fire extinguisher, but getting it to work is a problem.

The banner comes crashing down, all in flames.

And the ball hasn’t even begun.

When it does, it’s basically one disaster after another.

Josef is still in charge of that table, and has decided to outsource some of the work to his wife (Milada Jezková), but she doesn’t seem to be doing a good job of it, either. Returning from his other duties and casting an eye over the table, Josef realizes that other stuff is missing. The head cheese, for instance, is gone; and a bottle of brandy. His wife denies vociferously that anything’s gone. She’s been keeping an eye on this. An argument ensues, and Josef is forced to take his place as sentry while his wife goes off.

The crowd at the ball is a real crush—the entire town has been invited, so there’s barely room to move. The members of the committee, who have taken upon themselves the task of finding and choosing a Miss Fireman (after having spent a good bit of time ogling photos in magazines of beauty queens in a pageant), have a tough time.

They try making their way through the crowd, peering at young women, but that is difficult, what with everybody dancing and just too many people.

They try going up on the balcony and looking down (that’s the best place from which to assess bosoms, a vital prerequisite for a beauty queen), but that’s really not much good.

They get down onto the floor to look at legs, but realize soon enough that what they need to look at is faces.

But, for all the young women crowding this place, there don’t seem to be many candidates for the beauty contest. Some have belligerent and possessive boyfriends; some are too bored to want to participate.

Only one person is hell-bent on somehow getting his daughter to be Miss Fireman. Rosie is plump and unsmiling (but obviously attractive enough—she’s even had a tumble with a young man under that all-important table Josef’s been guarding all this while). And Rosie’s persistent father is so eager to get Rosie the crown that he keeps having drinks sent for the committee members, and they keep refusing them.

But, what with the dearth of pretty girls willing to participate, they just may have to say yes to Rosie, after all…

The ball’s only just begun. The Miss Fireman candidates have to be coached on how to walk the ramp (so to say); the winner has to be selected and has to present the ex-President with his gift. And there are the raffle prizes to be given out.

And, plagued by ill-luck as they are (not to mention their own idiosyncrasies and sense of what’s wrong and what’s right), the firemen will have a hard time with this ball, because everything will fall apart. Hilariously.

What I liked about this film:

The Firemen’s Ball was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 1969 Academy Awards, and though it didn’t win (the USSR’s War and Peace got the award), it’s easy to see how that nomination came about: this is a superb film. On the surface, it’s a comedy, and a very good one at that—with script, acting, and dialogue adding to the comedy (I especially loved the way Forman uses silences to highlight the humour in a lot of interactions: Josef’s reaction to the discovery that someone is making out under the table, for instance, is mostly conveyed through expressions, and they’re priceless).

Scratch that surface, and you’ll see why Czechoslovakia banned this film: it’s an obvious take on how corruption was rife in communist East Europe. Everything here—from the theft of the raffle prizes to Rosie’s dad’s attempts to get her into the beauty contest—reeks of dishonesty. Even the firemen’s committee, though they spout honesty and ethics, are soon able to talk themselves into believing that what they’re doing is the logical thing, the right thing.

Another aspect that appealed to me was the real-ness of the people (unsurprising, since Forman, for most roles, used the inhabitants of the town where he shot this film). For amateurs, too, I thought the acting was pretty good.

And the ending says it all.

What I didn’t like:

Nothing, really. I was irritated by the blatant objectification of the girls in the contest—when the committee members are looking them over, and especially after one of the more enthusiastic girls swiftly strips down to her swimsuit—but that, eventually, is really a part of the story. I don’t know if that was the way Forman meant it, but I like to think he did.

RIP, Miloš Forman. Thank you for your cinema.

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10 thoughts on “Hoří, má Panenko (1967)

  1. You know, I have Loves of a Blonde and was thinking about asking you if you would like to have that file, too. I assumed that it would be a film more to your liking – it is about the love life of a young girl, a mixture of comedy, drama and some social observation too. Then you could have watched that as your Forman tribute. But… no worries. You got there by another way, eventually.

    The objectification of women is intentional, I think. It is a source of humour at these old men thinking lustfully about young women. And was it a swimsuit or just plain underwear that the girl strips to?

    • I am so greedy, I saw the first line of your comment and the instant reaction was “I want, I want!” On second thoughts, no: not right now. I have too much to watch and too little time, as it is. Some other time. Thanks for the offer!

      I’m glad you (and Anu, I see) also think the objectification was women was intentional. The entire film seemed too intelligently crafted for this to be plain oversight. As for it being a swimsuit – it’s referred to in the subtitles as a ‘bathing suit’, and it’s obviously supposed to be pretty sexy, considering the reactions of the men when she peels off her clothes. Though it doesn’t leave much to the imagination, it’s really just a rather shabby set of underwear. Not really a bikini any proper bikini-wearer would be caught dead in.

      Which is also a subtle way of showing just how sad the state of affairs is…

      • A great comedy, and like any good comedy it has tragedy as its foundation.
        Really a hard-hitting film. It exposes a society, which espouses solidarity, but wants only to hold it high like an ostensorium, and clings to its rituals and highly frightened that this front will crumble and expose the reality. The whole thing works, because everyone cooperates and pretends everything is okay.
        Thank you for introducing the film to me.

        • I’m so glad you liked it, Harvey. I thought it was so well thought-out. Hilarious, of course, but in a way that gets frightening at times. The way, for instance, the firemen manage to convince themselves that what they’re doing re: the raffle tickets is right. Or the way the fire becomes a tamasha, with the barman setting up a bar as well… and the end. Oh, the end. I could see why the Czech government banned this film.

  2. I didn’t know that Forman had died. :(

    I was going to say *groooaan* when I realised that I had watched this movie a long, long time ago. Too long, from your review. I need the laughs. Plus, I like well-done satire.

    Re: objectification – like the poster above, I do think it was deliberate (not gratuitous). This is how the average man (in the film) sees women – lustfully. They are objects.

    • I happened to read about Forman’s death in the TOI. Came as a sad shock, because I’d just found this film and come to know of him (I had heard of his Hollywood films, but didn’t know the name of the director).

      Do try and watch this again – it’s such a hilarious film. :-D And I’m glad that you also think the objectification of women was deliberate. It seemed too intelligent a film to do something like that unthinkingly.

  3. Hi,
    You know, since I started reading this blog I have come to know about so many things about movies, directors, music directors, character artistes, things that I probably never paid attention to while watching a film before. It has made me appreciate cinema and its impact even more, whatever genre the movie belongs to.

    Quite frankly I didn’t know much about Milos Foreman before this. After reading this post and a search on the internet indicates that I have seen one of his movies though. It does fall in the timeline of this blog. It’s called Goyas Ghosts (2006) and I liked it, especially Javier Bardem’s acting.
    SO thanks again.

    • Thank you for the appreciation, and for taking the time to comment! You have no idea how much that means to me.

      I hadn’t heard of Goya’s Ghosts. Javier Bardem is enough to recommend a film to me – I like his acting a lot. And now that I’ve seen this film, I’m more likely to want to watch something more by Forman. Thank you for that lead.

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