The volunteer fire department in a small Czechoslovak town decides to organize a ball in a townhall with raffle and a beauty pageant. The firefighters also plan to present a small ceremonial fire axe as the birthday gift to their retired chairman who has cancer (although they believe he may not know of it).
During the ball, three of the members of the firefighter's committee look for eight candidates for the beauty contest, but they have difficulty finding enough of them. A man continues to buy drinks for the committee members to persuade them to include his overweight daughter among the candidates.
During the ball the raffle prizes start to disappear from the table, fine consumables first. Josef, one of the firefighters, knows the prizes have been stolen, but is unable to recover them, and even finds out that his wife is involved in the theft.
After much trouble, enough candidates for the beauty contest are found, and they are told that the winner will present a gift to their honorary chairman after the end of the contest. However, when the contest begins, the girls decide not to participate and lock themselves in the bathroom. Consequently, the crowd uses force to draw the replacement candidates to the stage.
Soon afterwards, the siren sounds because a house of an old man is on fire. All people immediately begin to leave the townhall without paying for the drinks they consumed. With the fire engine stuck in the snow, the firefighters manage to save some furniture from the house, but are unable to extinguish the fire.
To help the old man who lost almost everything in a fire, the people donate their raffle tickets to him. However, it is soon discovered almost all of the prizes had been stolen during the ball (except for some items of lesser value). The firefighters order the unknown thieves to return the stolen prizes once they turn off the lights, but during the period of darkness the remaining items are also stolen. Realizing this, the firefighter's committee moves backstage to discuss what they can do to save the reputation of the department. Deciding to do nothing, they return to the now empty hall, where only their retired chairman remains. The committee presents him the gift box, but when the box is opened, it turns out that the axe itself has also been stolen.Jan Vostrcil as Head of Committee
Josef Sebánek as Committee Member #2
Josef Valnoha as Committee Member
Frantisek Debelka as Committee Member #1
Josef Kolb as Josef
Jan Stöckl as Retired Fire Chief
Vratislav Cermák as Committee Member
Josef Rehorek as Committee Member #4
Václav Novotný as Committee Member
Frantisek Reinstein as Committee Member
Frantisek Paska as Committee Member
Stanislav Holubec as Karel
Josef Kutálek as Ludva
After the success of Loves of a Blonde (1965), Forman, along with fellow screenwriters Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papoušek, could not concentrate on their follow-up screenplay and so went to the north Bohemian town of Vrchlabí to hole up in a hotel and concentrate on writing. "One evening, to amuse ourselves, we went to a real firemen's ball," Forman recalls. "What we saw was such a nightmare that we couldn't stop talking about it. So we abandoned what we were writing on to start this script."
The movie was shot in a typical local Palace of Culture "Na střelnici" in Vrchlabí. Most of the actors were not professional actors (e.g. Josef Šebánek, Milada Ježková). To shoot the natural sound of their voices it was necessary to keep silence so during their dialogues the band just pretended to play and the dancing couples wore woollen socks or slippers.
Forman has commented on the issue of whether his film should be seen as an allegory of the larger society of the time:
I didn't want to give any special message or allegory. I wanted just to make a comedy knowing that if I'll be real, if I'll be true, the film will automatically reveal an allegorical sense. That's a problem of all governments, of all committees, including firemen's committees. That they try and they pretend and they announce that they are preparing a happy, gay, amusing evening or life for the people. And everybody has the best intentions... But suddenly things turn out in such a catastrophic way that, for me, this is a vision of what's going on today in the world.
The film generated considerable controversy on its release. Among other things, fire companies across Czechoslovakia protested that the film was an attack on their integrity, to the extent that Forman and his team felt obliged to tour the country dispelling this literal reading. The Czechoslovakian Communist party and the censors took exception to the film's cynical tone, and may also have feared that it represented a political allegory attacking the Communist system. The film ran for three weeks during the Dubcek era, but after the post-Prague Spring crackdown it was "banned forever".
Carlo Ponti, the film's Italian producer, also took umbrage at the film and pulled his financing, leaving Forman to face a possible 10 years imprisonment for "economic damage to the state". Producers in Paris, such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, picked up the rights and spared him the charges. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia occurred while Forman was still in Paris courting these producers, and he decided to remain outside Czechoslovakia.
The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 41st Academy Awards. The film was also listed to compete at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but the festival was cancelled due to the events of May 1968 in France.