To mark the closure of Riverside Studios in August for a three-year renovation, the Czech Centre London organised this intriguing double bill: Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball and Petr Zelenka’s Buttoners, two darkly comic films made some thirty years apart, one under Communist rule and the other under the emerging democracy of an independent Czech state.
Forman’s film, regarded as a classic of the Czech New Wave, depicts the attempts of an inept group of elderly officials to marshal a social event that soon descends into a comedy of errors. The entrants for the beauty contest are too shy to make an appearance, the raffle prizes are stolen, and an actual fire breaks out at a nearby farmhouse. Highly naturalistic in style, the film nonetheless works tremendously as a satire of Eastern European Communist authorities of the time: uniformed, pompous officials attempting to assert order on chaos for their own questionable motives. And when things go wrong, it is the self-preservation of the group that takes priority: ‘The prestige of the brigade is more important than my honesty!’ yells one fireman at another late in the film. It is not hard to see why the film was Forman’s last before he was essentially forced to emigrate to the US.
While The Firemen’s Ball is an almost real-time depiction of a single event in a single location, albeit with an allegorical edge, Buttoners (Knoflíkáři) is a wildly ambitious and multi-episodic affair. The bold opening imagines a Japanese family in 1945 using novel American swearwords to curse the rainy weather in Kokura, unaware that the same conditions have just prevented the US Air Force from targeting the city with an atomic bomb. The scene switches between the swearing American pilots up in the sky and the swearing Japanese family down below, and the message is clear: we are all prey to chance events that may determine entire lives – and we all like a good curse.
Cut to Prague in 1995, and a series of episodes taking place one evening picks up the same theme. In scenes reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth, a taxi driver picks up a series of fares with quirky requests, and a nocturnal bond forms between them during their short time together. One couple can only find sexual satisfaction in moving vehicles; another man is planning to catch his wife in flagrante with a lover. Elsewhere, a young couple appear to witness a suicide and seek consolation at a punk concert, a glib psychiatrist lectures a lovesick young man on how to cure himself, and an incredibly slow-witted husband squabbles with his wife in their dingy home. The central episode – entitled ‘The Last Decent Generation’ – depicts two bourgeois couples meeting for dinner to discuss their children’s marriage, but even this apparent normality is soon derailed: like the firemen in Forman’s film, it turns out that the couples hide their perversions under a fragile veneer of respectability.
Like Pulp Fiction possessed by the spirit of the Czech New Wave, Buttoners veers from one scene to the next, cutting backwards and forwards in time to an eclectic soundtrack of synth rock, ska punk and the occasional ballad. The different episodes come to resemble deranged parables from a post-Communist Czech Republic where traditional authority figures have been entirely undermined and everything is determined by chance. Some of the performances detract from the film’s overall effect: Zelenka used inexperienced actors for most of the non-Czech roles, and the effect can be a little grating, with certain potentially hilarious scenes falling a little flat. But there is no denying the thrill of the ride, in both these films, as we watch the gradual unravelling – or ‘unbuttoning’ – of the ordered universe of officialdom.