Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jan Vostrcil, Josef Kolb, Jan Stockl, Stanislav Holubec, Frantisek Svet
Director:  Milos Forman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Milos Forman Interview, About the Transfer
Length:  73 Minutes
Release Date:  February 12, 2002

ďIf the people stole the lottery, they cannot win it!Ē

ďWhat about the people who honestly bought tickets, but didnít steal?Ē

ďThey should have stolen.Ē

Film **

The Firemanís Ball was Czech director Milos Formanís first color film, and his last creative hurrah in his native land before the arrival of the Russians.  On the one hand, itís a rather uneven, graceless comedy whose primary humor probably doesnít much survive the translation outside of a Socialist state.  On the other hand, no movie banned forever by the Communist Party can be considered all bad.

With all the recent news about the heroism of firefighters, itís a little amusing to see a picture where they are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a group.  They are trying to stage the gala event of the title, but itís a disaster from the startÖtheir attempt to hold a beauty contest is a disorganized fiasco.  Their precious lottery table gets stolen from repeatedly.  Worst of all, a fire breaks out nearby during the ball, and our intrepid heroes canít do much about it!

One can sense Formanís sly digs at his Socialist government, but unfortunately, unless you happen to be a member of such a state yourself, a lot of that humor is lost.  Weíre left only with painful, broad humor that dips into the well once too often.

Some sequences would be funnier if they werenít so maddeningly long.  Even in a relatively short film, the beauty pageant scene is driven into the ground and broken off, as reluctant ladies march into the firemenís office for unceremonial judging.  When it comes time to announce their candidates, they canít get anyone on stage.  The band finishes their song and proceeds to drink their beer while the emcees are left hanging!  

All the while, the food and prizes from the lottery table keep growing less and less in number, while the men argue and bicker over whoís supposed to be guarding it.  One of the menís own wives helps herself to a head cheese, which provides for an amusing rim shot near the end of the film.

The most disturbing sequence, however, is the fire, which rages out of control while the firemen canít even get their truck unstuck from the snow.  They manage to save the old man and a few possessions, but the house burns to the ground while our hapless fighters can only throw meager shovelfuls of snow at it.  They try to recompense at the ball by having everyone donate their lottery tickets to the old man, who only grumbles sadly that he needs money, not those tickets, which are practically worthless by that time anyway.  The only amusing part is that the waiter from the ball tries to collect his bills from the attendees, who all vacated the venue to watch the fire.

All of these are political in-jokesÖthe people under the Socialist government were impoverished and starving, so yes, there was theft.  The firemen, like the political machine, was disorganized, clueless, and when it came right down to it, unable to do one job they were supposed to do.  But change the politics of the audience, and these become mere socio-economic footnotes, and not forces that drive the humor.  Whatís left is a meandering comedy with no rhythm, no memorable or distinctive characters, and only a few laughs.

The bright side, however, is that the filmís ultimate banishment from Russian controlled Czechoslovakia paved the way for Formanís journey west, where he has since repeatedly defended The Firemanís Ball, but more importantly, gone on to make acclaimed and beloved movies here in America. 

Perhaps itís best to view the movie like the old chairman receiving his honorary award at the end.  He finds the box empty (naturally), but stoically hides his disappointment and goes on.

Video ***

This is a very good color transfer from Criterion, preserving the integrity of Formanís images with natural looking tones, sharply defined images and no instances of bleeding or blurring.  Grain is mostly non-existent; only once or twice is it even slightly noticeable.  The print itself is in very good shape, and not suffering from the usual marks, spots or fading you might associated with a picture this old.  A quality job from start to finish.

Audio **1/2

The simple mono mix is a decent one, with plenty of music and lively dialogue to give the audio its range and punch.  I noticed no distracting noise or interferenceÖa smooth presentation all the way.

Features *1/2

There is a 15 minute interview with Milos Forman, describing the difficulties in making and releasing the film (producer Carlo Ponti almost sued to get back his $65,000, for starters) and how it was received both by the masses and by the powers at the time.  There is also a 5 minute look at the transfer process, featuring Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek.


The Firemanís Ball is beloved by some, dismissed by others.  It didnít strike me as one of Milos Formanís career apexes, but for those who enjoyed his brash political comedy, this DVD from Criterion is a quality offering that will definitely please fans of the directorís work and European cinema as well.