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Sabotaging Socialist Realism




By Celluloid Liberation Front.

As part of its ‘Out of the Past’ sidebar section, the 47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival has presented a digitally restored copy of Nová Vlna milestone The Firemen’s Ball by Milos Forman.

Restored classics often come with an intimidating dose of self-importance and grandeur; Milos Forman’s 1967 feature on the contrary stands out for its unassuming genius and timely spirit. Without holding forth grand theories on freedom and democracy the film exposes the encumbering rigidity of Real Socialism by exasperating its absurd and farcical aspects. The annual ball of a provincial fire station becomes a surrealist canvas where the director affectionately observes social tics and amusing conducts. Forman deconstructs the inner workings of ‘socialist’ rule through a behavioural diagnosis of its ossified procedures, undermining the grotesque staging of communality.

A clumsy crew of fire-fighters tries to orchestrate the annual ball, but every single detail escapes their awkward attempt to enforce the brutal mockery of Communist orthodoxy. Graceless uniforms chasing the spell of feminine Eros trying to bridle its uncontrollable attraction into a pathetic beauty contest; that will in fact degenerate in joyful mayhem. The ideological institution of marriage betrayed under a table, lottery prizes disappearing as the elderly chief of the firehouse, in whose honour the ball is held, waits in vain for his turn to get under the spotlight. Not even the call of duty ignited by a fire next door manages to coalesce the mutinous ball around an ordered semblance; people leave without paying as the situation grows funnier and more ungovernable. The beauty contest turns into a wild race of desire and confusion, the honorary prize to be awarded to the senior fire fighter gets lost; chaos seduces order. Parading on the screen is the unruly authenticity of life exceeding its planned course; it is the hilarity of a spontaneous humanity colliding with the existential austerity of Five-Year plans.

The heartfelt proximity between the director and his characters conveys the vivid sense of life under an obtuse regime and the incompatibility of impulses with social control. Completely devoid of any patronizing or didactic tone, the film turns the bigotry of censors into a narrative asset by omitting literal criticism and making way for subversive parody. The work with non-professional actors is impressive insofar as it seamlessly combine the spontaneity of real life characters with a refined and subtle script. Forman’s eye captures a universal condition and its anarchic essence transcends geographical borders and historical conditions; The Firemen’s Ball celebrates in fact the unrehearsed drifts of daily situations. It is the intrinsic comicality of indoctrination that denounces the stern regime rather than verbose declarations about freedom of speech and other democratic illusions. Against the grey homologation of a failed utopia, the film rescues the glimmering of refusal from the dark waters of compliance and reclaims the inalienable right to imagination. It is significant that Forman’s work in the US will rarely boast quite the same creative irreverence, as if the awareness of unfreedom was more stimulating than the statutory illusion of liberty.

One wonders how, if ever, will the equivalent of this artistic line of fire blaze up in the colourful world of consumer fundamentalism.

Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an “open reputation” informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent cinephiles, transmedial terrorists, aesthetic dynamyters and random deviants. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands. Twitter feed here.

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