Ashes and Allegories

November 11, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Firemen’s Ball,” (1967) was the last film Milos Forman made in his native Czechoslovakia. Many critics see the film as satire, a critique of communist society.  They credit Forman for his genius in being able to make the film at all, given the stodgy communist censorship that prevailed in the Soviet bloc at the time.

If the movie is allegory, it’s about the mistrust, dishonesty, cruelty, and above all incompetence built into the state bureaucratic system. The firemen, with their committees and bickering and attention to silly aspects of the ball, can’t seem to do anything right. At one point, there’s an actual fire at an old man’s farmhouse, but the fire engine gets stuck in the snow, and there’s no water pressure, and the house burns down. The only help the firemen can offer the old man is to suggest he keep warm by moving his chair closer to the fire. Then they thoughtfully turn the chair around so he doesn’t have to watch his house burn down.

I hadn’t thought about “Firemen’s Ball” in a long time, but my son e-mailed to ask if he should go see it when it was shown at his university’s film series.

Could there be a similar allegory about American capitalism? Socialist collectivism can lead to bad outcomes. But what about individualized and privatized systems? Could the rules of such a system result in a man’s house burning down while firefighters on the scene did nothing?

This incident happened over a month ago, and it got much coverage in the media and the blogosphere. But as far as I know, nobody saw a parallel with “Fireman’s Ball,” perhaps because Forman’s film was so different in one important respect. It was fictional.

If you see “Fireman’s Ball,” be sure to get the version with Forman’s own spoken introduction in English. When the movie was released in Czechoslovakia, he says, 40,000 firemen resigned in protest. So he explained to them that the movie was not really about firemen and that “the firemen in the film are merely symbols of the whole society.” This, he says, made the firemen “peaceful and happy.” Then Forman adds for the movie audience, “But the film is about firemen.”

Forman says this almost with a wink, so in the end you don’t really know if he intended the movie to be a simple story, poignant and funny, or whether he was going for  larger meanings.  Maybe it is, as he says, just a story about firemen. But as with the Tennessee fire, the intent of those who created the story has little to do with whether that story can serve as a more general commentary on the society.

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