Fireman’s Ball, The (1967): Milos Forman’s Oscar-Nominated Czech Satire

The Firemen’s Ball was the last Czech film directed by Milos Forman, before leaving the country for the U.S. after the Soviet invasion in August 1968.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

The Firemen’s Ball
The Firemen's Ball Poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster
Hoří, má panenko!


The original title of the film, Hoří, má panenko! translates into, “There’s a Fire, My Darling.”

Set at the annual ball of a small town’s volunteer fire department, the tale unfolds as a whimsical and anecdotal farce of how a well intentioned ball goes wrong, spiraling out of control. Casting no professional actors, the firemen on screen are the firemen of the small town where the film takes place.

Narrative Structure:

The volunteer fire department in a small town decides to organize a ball, including a raffle and a beauty pageant. The firefighters plan to present a small ceremonial fire axe as a birthday gift to their retired chair who has cancer.

During the ball, the firefighters have difficulty finding enough contestants, opening the doors for other possibilities. Thus a man buys drinks for the committee members to persuade them to include his overweight daughter.

The raffle prizes start to disappear from the table. Fireman Josef knows the prizes have been stolen, but he is unable to recover them.

Some contestants are found, told the winner will present a gift to their honorary chair. However, when the contest begins, the girls lock themselves in the bathroom, and the crowd drag replacement candidates to the stage.

When sirens sound because the old man’s house is on fire, the members leave the townhall without paying for drinks. With the fire engine stuck in the snow, the firefighters are unable to extinguish the fire with only shovelfuls of snow.

To help the old man who lost everything, the people donate their raffle tickets. However, almost all of the prizes have been stolen, leaving some low value items. The firefighters turn off the lights to give the thieves opportunity to return the prizes, but in the darkness the remaining items are also stolen.

The committee moves backstage to discuss how to save their reputation, but unable to reach decisions, they do nothing, and return to the empty hall. The committee presents him the gift box and he gives heartfelt speech, but when the box is opened, it turns out the axe itself has also been stolen.

In the end, the old man whose house caught fire goes to sleep in his bed, which is in the snow beside.

The movie was shot in a typical local Palace of Culture “Na střelnici” in Vrchlabí. Most of the actors were not professional actors (e.g. Josef Šebánek, Milada Ježková). To shoot the natural sound of their voices it was necessary to have silence on-set, so during the actors’ dialogue scenes the band merely pretended to play and the dancing couples wore wool socks or slippers.

Czech New Wave

Fireman’s Ball, which is the first film Forman shot in color, is considered to be, alongside “Closely watched Trains” and “The Loves of a Blonde,” a milestone of the Czech New Wave.

After the success of “Loves of a Blonde,” Forman, along with screenwriters Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papouek, went to the Bohemian town of Vrchlab to concentrate on writing. “One evening, to amuse ourselves, we went to a real firemen’s ball,” Forman recalls. “What we saw was such a nightmare that we couldn’t stop talking about it. So we abandoned what we were writing on to start this script.”

Forman claimed that he “didn’t want to give any special message or allegory. I wanted just to make a comedy knowing that if I’ll be real, if I’ll be true, the film will automatically reveal an allegorical sense. 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.

For him, the film has no “hidden symbols or double meanings.” However, the Czechoslovak authorities and censors viewed his film as a political allegory, a satire of the dysfunctional Communist system. The film ran for three weeks during the Dubcek era, but after the Prague Spring crackdown, it was banned.

Carlo Ponti, the film’s Italian producer, also pulled his backing. Forman to faced a possible imprisonment for the charge of economic damage done to the state. Fortunately, producers in France took the rights. The Prague Spring invasion occurred while Forman was still in Paris courting these producers, forced him to emigrate.

The film generated controversy on its release, with fire companies protesting that it was an attack on their integrity, forcing Forman to tour the country dispelling this reading. However, the film became a big hit in Czechoslovak cinemas, selling over 750,000 tickets. Contrary to claims, the film wasn’t banned in Czechoslovkia and was broadcast on Television thee in May 1969.

Carlo Ponti, the film’s Italian producer, pulled his financing, leaving Forman to face a possible imprisonment for “economic damage to the state.” Forman drove from London to Paris to see Claude Lelouch, who had promised to buy rights for any Forman movie, but Lelouch was in Morocco. Forman then met Claude Berri, who contacted François Truffaut, and after watching the movie, they agreed to buy international rights.

Forman made a strong impact on Hollywood and went on to win two Best Picture Oscars, for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975, and for the musical film “Amadeus” in 1984.

Oscar Alert

“The Fireman’s Ball” was nominated for the 1968 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar alongside with the epic-length War and Peace, from Russia, which won; Hungary’s “The Boys of Paul Street,” “The Girl With the Pistol” from Italy,” and the French comedy, “Stolen Kisses,” by Francois Truffaut.

In the previous year, 1967, the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar went to a Czech feature, Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains.

Critical Status:

The film was accepted to compete at the 1968 Cannes Film Fest, but that edition was cancelled due to the events of May 1968 in France.


Directed by Miloš Forman
Produced by Rudolf Hájek
Written by Forman, Jaroslav Papoušek, Ivan Passer, Václav Šašek

Cinematography Miroslav Ondříček
Edited by Miroslav Hájek

Release date: December 15, 1967

Running time: 71 minutes
Country Czechoslovakia
Budget $65,000