The rhythmic cogs of the machinery click and shuffle, a steady beat emerges with each press of the tin, each bubble of the milk. A behemoth of industrial power, the milk-cannery seems to twitch and stir as though it is a living entity unto itself. And high above it all in a rickety wheelchair, with wisps of milk-white hair and as furious as a steam-kettle sits Worst himself, king of the factory. Yet the cannery is not an empty monolith, but an operation that relies on the calloused hands and sweaty brows of its long-neglected workmen, as they begin to chant a sing-song “heave-ho, heave-ho!” This is Martin Frič’s incredible Heave Ho! (Hej rup!, 1934), one of his earlier films in a career that spanned decades, and you’d be forgiven if your first impression was that of a terribly serious and dramatic film. In fact, Heave Ho! is nothing short of a universal comedy, bolstered by its unabashed exposé of the daily injustices faced by the Czech working class.

Comedy, in general, is quite specific to a particular linguistic group, and even further, to specific sub-cultures in shared linguistic groups. Rarely do other cultures enjoy Slavic or Germanic comedy for instance, and much has been said about the stark differences between the opposing comedy styles of Britain and the United States.1 Therefore, comedy films rarely travel well between cultures. Though the silent era was a great vehicle for non-verbal comedy that worked across national borders, the talkies began to see more nationalist forms of comedy emerge,2 and this is why Czech comedy is so unique. Despite the anticipated struggles of producing Czech-language features for a broader audience, the Czech comedy genre flourished in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Czech cinema began to be well-received by international audiences, as evidenced by the numerous Oscar nominations during this period for Czech comedies. Even between the wars, Heave Ho! was being screened in New York, London and Paris.3 Though comparisons can be made between the stylistic similarities of Czech and British humour, this fails to account for the much wider appeal of these films.

Heave Ho! relies on a type of comedy that is inherently physical. Milk factory owner Simonides (Jan Werich) and worker Filip (George Voskovec) play off each other like Laurel and Hardy, their physical differences being well suited to the slapstick hijinks that ensue. In fact, they make frequent references to the then-recent City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931), a film wherein Chaplin also plays the small tramp friend to the rich large man. They are contrasted by the frail weakness of the malignant capitalist Worst (Josef Skřivan) and emboldened by the boisterous throng of the young working men. The first act of the film concentrates on the misery of Simonides, who finds himself nursing a five-day bout of drunkenness as he flops, stumbles and casually tosses his wallet away. He is then rudely declared bankrupt by his competitors, who have essentially tricked him out of the business. When he overhears an impassioned radio speech by Filip, a worker’s representative who dares to speak openly, off-script, about the true conditions they are facing, Simonides decides to reward Filip with employment, only to realise he suddenly has nothing to offer. Instead it is Filip who helps Simonides deal with his new status as a destitute, as he experiences first-hand the frustrating and miserable existence of the poor and unemployed. After wallowing in pity, the second act of the film picks up as Simonides and Filip attempt to do various types of work, unsuccessfully trimming a hedge (down to the ground), accidentally becoming unpaid tar-spreaders and allowing a steam-roller to rampage and press a car deep into the earth. Watching its driver attempt to sit in the now-underground vehicle in bewilderment is positively delightful. Perhaps this is where the success of the Czech comedy is found, in the universal element of slapstick.

Yet there is something else about Czech comedy that is more than physicality. Although the song “Hej rup, chceme zít!” (“Heave-ho, We Want to Live”) seems a little out of place, it quickly becomes an incredibly rousing leitmotif, the musical soul of the film weaved into the narrative. The third act sees Simonides inherit some unfinished property, which is built together with the help of the local unemployed and becomes a collectivist milk factory to rival Worst’s. Even their product, fresh milk and butter, seems more authentic than Worst’s musty tinned milk. More than a milk business, “Heave-ho” becomes a movement that cannot be contained. So, while there is certainly humour and great use of bodily expression here (particularly the mass movements of the group of workers as a united body), this film also has a powerful sense of solidarity. As such, the unravelling of the third act is steeped in comingled ecstasy. There is a delightful play between the clever pacing of dialogue during the phone call scene in which the collective make themselves out to be much more organised than they are –with impeccable comic timing – against the stampede for freedom that occurs in the last moments of the film. It’s simply rapturous when the collective storms and satisfactorily defeats their enemy capitalist, reveling in the power of their workers’ union. And with a kiss, we are treated to the much-promised ‘happy end’. This is the essence of Czech comedy: pure, unadulterated joy. 

Hej rup!/Heave Ho! (1934 Czechoslovakia 103 mins)

Prod Co: Meissner Dir: Martin Frič Scr: Martin Frič, Václav Wasserman, George Voskovec, Jan Werich Phot: Otto Heller Ed: Martin Frič Mus: Jaroslav Ježek

Cast: George Voskovec, Jan Werich, Helena Busová, Josef Skrivan, Theodor Pistek, Zvonimir Rogoz, Alois Dvorský


  1. Korte, Barbara and Lechner, Doris. History and Humour: British and American Perspectives (Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2013).
  2. Hames, Peter. Czech and Slovak Cinema: Themes and Traditions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 32-35.
  3. Hames, 32-35.

About The Author

Faith Everard is an independent film scholar and former radio producer from Melbourne. She has a deep passion for cinema old and new.

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