The career of Milos Forman (now 82) parallels in some ways that of Roman Polanski. Forman was a major force in the Czech New Wave in the 1960s, and Polanski was a product of the Lodz Film School in Poland, whose first feature Knife in the Water won international acclaim. Yet both, given the opportunity, decided to build their lives and careers in the West, having had their fill of Soviet domination. Their family histories were also tragically similar, with Forman’s parents and Polanski’s mother having died in Nazi concentration camps. Both directors’ films are understandably marked by a very dark humor.
The Firemen’s Ball sprang from an actual experience of Forman’s, together with co-writers Ivan Passer (a close friend and also a major director who also wound up in Hollywood) and Jaroslav Papousek. The three had ventured to a small Bohemian town to work on a new film. Fortuitously, they attended a firemen’s ball that was, in Forman’s words, “such a nightmare that we couldn’t stop talking about it.” Although Forman contends he had no ulterior motives, the film’s devastating portrait of Czech society hugely offended the Firemen’s Union and the Communist regime, of which Forman was never a favorite. (Although a certain amount of humor was permitted in Soviet-bloc films, Forman had crossed the line.) Because Carlo Ponti pulled his funding in response, Forman was facing possible imprisonment. He journeyed to Paris, where Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard helped bail him out. Truffaut had recently made Fahrenheit 451, indeed a more serious critique of firemen and their potential, but there was no comparable Western outrage. This occurred at the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Forman wisely decided not to return to Prague. Meanwhile The Firemen’s Ball was nominated for an Oscar, prompting an offer from America, where he made Taking Off after a four-year interim.
Forman’s subsequent career reached a kind of peak by the mid-1980s and tapered off in subsequent decades. His multiple-Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest bears some similarity to The Firemen’s Ball and Taking Off in its dependence on ensemble performances and the meticulous creation of a particular milieu. Both Hair and Amadeus (for which Forman returned to Prague) are fairly spectacular adaptations of highly successful stage productions. Ragtime and the much later The People vs. Larry Flynt allowed Forman to turn his discerning critical eye on an America, not much less grotesque than the Czech reality of The Firemen’s Ball. Valmont and Goya’s Ghosts demonstrated Forman’s comfort with the past’s own absurdities. All in all, the director’s output has been sporadic and quirky with flashes of brilliance—again, not entirely dissimilar to that of Polanski.