Milos Forman in his interview tagged along with the film on the DVD, mentions that they went to this small town in Czechoslovakia to work on a script that was being hounded by distractions in Prague. Once settled there, the script would still not take off. One day they saw a poster in the village announcing the firemen’s ball. They attended the ball, and from the next day, that’s the film they were working on. They made friends with the firemen, used to play cards with them every evening, and when the script was written, Milos cast the firemen in the film.
That’s how I believe stories are written, and films are made, when the real world takes over the ideas you are grappling with, and when your ideas start grappling with the real world.
The use of amateur actors does change the pace of a shot, the editing rhythm. Because they do not deliver their lines, or take their pauses, or give their reactions in a way which is dramatically most effective, the pace at times becomes awkward, not quite right, but that adds its own charm to the film.
The sub-context of the film of course like most East European films of the time is a critique of the Communist state, the resulting impoverishment of the people which in turn led to a general degeneration of moral and civic values. And yet, everyone struggles hard to keep up appearances, and what is the worst sin, is not stealing but being caught. It is worse to sully the good name of the fire brigade than to be dishonest. This line in the dialogue apparently offended the Communist top-guns the most.
This was the last film that was made in free Czechoslovakia before the Russians invaded it. So, even though the Politburo disliked it, they could not ban it, nor did they succeed in getting it criticized by the people of the village themselves, which would have allowed a polite suppression of the film. But after three weeks of running in the theatres, the Russian invasion finally brought about a “ban forever”, on the film, in Czechoslovakia.
Carlo Ponti, the original financier of the film backed out of the deal because he thought the film showed the working class in a bad light. This in itself, could have meant ten years imprisonment for Milos Forman, under the rules of the Czech government. But Francois Truffaut bought the rights to the film, which proved lucky after the official ban, as the Czechoslovakia Socialist Republic had no option but to give over the negative and the prints to Truffaut and it could not stop the film’s release in the West.
The film moves from one bizarrely funny sequence to another. The lottery prizes that slowly and surely disappear from the table, before they can be distributed fairly, the rounding off of unlikely beauty candidates for a beauty contest, the honorary prize that has to be given to the retired 86 year old chairman, which is forgotten until the end, and when given, is not there, but accepted stoically by him, with all the right words, the old man whose house is burnt down and who gets worthless raffle tickets as a gesture of kindness from the partygoers, and who ends up sharing his bed in the snow, with an old fireman who has been wrapped up in a woman’s scarf by his wife to protect him from the cold.
Milos Forman ends his interview by saying that pressures exist everywhere, but given the choice between ideological pressure and commercial pressure, he prefers the latter, because that leaves him subject to the tastes of the audience, which is bound to throw up less or more people whose tastes coincide with his, but ideological pressure leaves the film maker at the mercy of one or two idiots who want him to conform to their ideas of right and wrong.
Yet strangely, so much work that we admire has come from countries that are coping with ideological pressures, and where film makers have been forced to subvert their content into a sub-context. Seeing how our country is slowly and surely moving from commercial pressures to ideological pressures in all the art forms, perhaps we will soon be learning the art of a more layered narrative.