Vol 2, No 5
7 February 2000
K I N O E Y E:|
A Nation of Thieves
Miloš Forman's Hoří, má panenko
Andrew J Horton
One of the most endearing Czech comedies ever to have been made is Miloš Forman's Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen's Ball, 1967). The film owes its success to a fine mix of observational humour and allegorical satire, with much of its kudos coming from the fact that the film was made in the liberal period leading up to the Prague Spring. It is some measure of both the relaxation of the totalitarian regime and biting humour of the film that when it was first shown an introductory title was added to explain that the film was mocking the Communist system and not the nation's firemen.
In the 1960s, it certainly seemed feasible to view Forman's comedy as a satire on the Communist system, and it is a label which has largely stuck and unthinkingly applied right up to the present day. In doing so, critics have ignored the fact that the film seems just as penetrating as an incisive piece of social humour in the post-Communist age as it was a political piece of humour in the 1960s. Indeed with the benefit of hindsight, it now seems fair to say that Hoří, má panenko was in fact never really an anti-Communist film per se and in many ways it is film that rails against that scourge of the capitalist era - amoral and immoral individualism.
As the title suggests the film takes place against the backdrop of a large dance held by town fire station. The loose plot (which has a surprising feel of linearity and cohesion for its lack of traditional plot) encompasses an number of dilemmas for the firemen which they unexpectedly encounter in the course of the evening: the logistics of organising a beauty contest, the problems of guarding the raffle prizes and how to act charitably towards a man whose house has just burnt down.
An unsuccessful morality
The bumbling, conservative men tackle these problems as best as they can trying to find answers which are dignified, moral and right and which preserve the order of the evening. Their answers of course do exactly the opposite and the evening descends into complete farce. Everybody offers the man whose house has burnt down their raffle tickets, which he takes as a gross insult as they not given him money, when the firemen point out the prizes this will mean he has won, it becomes apparent that they have in fact all been stolen bar a few kitschy porcelain items.
Convening behind the scenes how to respond to this crisis, the firemen debate the theft and come to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with people stealing the prizes, as they had paid for a raffle ticket and the people had in effect robbed themselves. The real villains, they conclude, are actually the people who stole prizes but hadn't bought a ticket.
Forman's satire is spot on. The Czechs have a phrase (He who does not steal, robs the family). There is nothing ironic about its use, and was popularly used in Communist times to justify petty theft, usually from the workplace. Wages were so low, that a certain amount of light-fingered free enterprise was necessary to support the family and all across the country thousands of workers walked out of their factories with various wares hidden about their person.
The crime wave did not go unnoticed, and factories did take measures to stop the thefts, but there was little they could do. "And if we catch you doing it again," an old joke on the consequences of getting caught pilfering goes "that will be the second time we've caught you."
A mental aftermath
Communism fell in 1989, but it left behind a vast legacy that scarred the nations it had been forced on. Although the structures of totalitarianism were torn away, the attitudes which it fostered still remain. Prime among them is the prevalence of the adage He who does not steal robs the family. Surveys in the Czech Republic have revealed an astonishing attitude to theft in the country, with an alarmingly large proportion of people believing that theft is not immoral. Usually this belief is expressed or justified through the He who does not steal saying.
Under Communism, there was not very much to take and the thefts were usually small scale. Now, in the age of capitalism, there are rather richer pickings to be had, and the scale of robbery has got larger. The Czechs have clearly misread Darwin and believe they are in a survival of the fattest. This has led to large-scale corruption, financial malpractice and downright fraud, all so as not to rob the family. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Czechs have been somewhat tardy in the business of improving financial transparency in the markets. Who knows what scale of theft we might find if it was truly clear what murky deals were being cast to grab a larger slice of the pie.
Forman's Hoří, má panenko could easily have been made in 1997 - the year the Czech koruna nosedived and the fundamental flaws in economic restructuring were exposed - and it would have been just as relevant as it was when it first came out thirty years before.
A satire of what?
Which begs the question, was the film every really satirising Communism in the first place? Forman indirectly points out the contradictions of the totalitarian brand of Socialism; that under it collective action actually decreased and rampant individualism was fostered. Hoří, má panenko was, therefore, a plea for the restoration of something remarkably dear to Communist hearts - communal spirit and the belief in the good of society over the good of the individual. (Perhaps this is the aspect of the film which allowed it to be made before the regime had fully relaxed under the Prague Spring.)
As such, Hoří, má panenko is a satire not of Communism but in how people reacted to it. Forman in fact has little to say about the regime itself. His well-meaning firemen might be allergorical representations of the Communist regime, but it is hardly the firemen who do anything wrong in the film aside from the fact that their good intentions outweigh their organisational capabilities - a mild rebuke compared to the scathing vitriol Forman pours on the ball's guests. There is no doubt that the firemen could not have organised an event which would run totally smoothly, but it is the individualistic party-goers who cause the event to descend to the level of total farce.
Meanwhile, He who does not steal might well emerge as the largest single factor in inhibiting the transition to a full-functioning free-market economy, beating Communist-era underinvestment, mismanagement and protection of Party interests over economic ones in terms of the depth and longevity of the consequences. It's clearly high time to be watching Hoří, má panenko again in a new light.
Andrew J Horton, 7 February 2000
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