Notable Czech cultural figures like Egon Kisch or Karel Konrad have praised Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich not only for their work as actors and writers but also for their contributions “ v civilu” -- as normal citizens, out of costume. This paper will study the very intersection of these realms – the merging of art and civic life – in connection with Voskovec and Werich’s (V+W’s) hit film, Heave Ho! We Want to Live! [Hej rup! Chceme zit!].
V+W’s optimistic film comedy opened in Prague’s Alfa Theater on October 26,1934, and earned praise from critics and popular audiences alike for its technical merits, balanced comedic style and optimistic message that a scrappy, forward-thinking collective of young people (“heave-hoers”) can triumph over rampant unemployment and uncompassionate capitalism. Presenting the economic crisis of the 1930s from the point of view of contemporary youth, the film had a powerful effect on young leftist Czechs, who had been suffering not only financial hardship but also an identify crisis of sorts. Young Czechs demanded public recognition of their plight and saw Heave Ho! as an ideal vehicle towards this end. More importantly, they also needed a viable model to inspire and unify their ranks. This they found not only in the film’s central narrative, but also in the very logic of its creation: the film depicts a collective of young “heave-hoers” and, at the same time, was created by such a collective. In word and deed, then, the film represented a successful youth endeavor. Invigorating the film’s overall impact, moreover, was the contemporaneous scandal surrounding the actors’ controversial play, The Executioner and the Fool, which provoked a full-blown riot in the actors’ Liberated Theater just four days after the film’s debut.
I will argue that Heave Ho! did not simply supply Czech youth with positive images and slogans to be disseminated and mimicked; rather, V+W’s film narrative, coupled with the actors’ behavior behind the scenes, provided audiences with a vital model of performative ethics. The film encouraged identification between actor and spectator and allowed audiences to see their own lives as narratives to be shaped. As evidence I will explore the contributions of V+W’s most active audiences who, informed by V+W’s example, began to “act” in the social sphere, organizing various activities under the rubric of “Heave Ho!” and “We Want to Live!” that truly blur the boundaries between life and art.