I, Olga Hepnarova (2016) – An Introspective Examination of a Inexplicable Tragedy

By Arun Kumar

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

I, Olga Hepnarova, Movie Poster

Austere yet luminous monochrome palette, drab atmosphere of dirty corridors & crumbling buildings, harrowing first-person focus, and static shots observing characters’ fidgeting behavior in Czech film-makers Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda’s directorial debut I, Olga Hepnarova (‘Ja, Olga Hepnarova’, 2016) diffuses a memorable, haunting account of a individual’s alienation and loneliness. The intimate, empathetic subjective approach to an otherwise unsympathetic central character reminds us of the masterful works of Robert Bresson, Martin Scorsese, etc. Czech Republic may have forgotten the real-life tragedy depicted in this film, while the rest of the world may have never heard about it, but the directing duo’s deliberately minimalist approach turns Olga Hepnarova’s deeds into one of the stark and very unique character studies in recent times. Who is Olga Hepnarova? A woman scarred by parents’ indifference & abuse and society’s marginalization or bullying decided to commit a complicated form of suicide (at the age of 22, on 10 July, 1973). She drove her company’s truck into a calm crowd waiting for tram, killing eight innocent bystanders and injuring twenty. During the trial, she wished for a death sentence and was hanged in 12th March, 1975. Olga goes down in Czech history as the last woman to receive capital punishment.
Olga is an angry, nihilistic outsider, exhibiting psychotic behavior like Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver”. But, unlike Scorsese’s masterpiece, the viewpoint here is very narrow, never taking an expansive look at the society that Olga feels has wronged her. Through enigmatic, contemplative, interlinked vignettes, the director puts us in closer proximity to the character. The use of Bressonian film-form portrays how Olga’s loveless, lonely life provoked her to unchain the inner demons. Director Weinreb & Kazda doesn't waver from the fact that what she did was unforgivable and impossible to justify. At the same time, they don’t cast out the 22 year old girl’s action as simply an act of a monster. The script was based on Roman Cilek’s highly factual account of Olga’s life and crimes. The directors don’t take the traditional, cause & effect path. What they are after isn’t to convey specific information about the case or to weave the particular social conditions of the period. For the majority of narrative, only the strong emotions felt by Olga pervades through the frames. From a sociopolitical perspective, we can see it as the representation of angst-ridden, oppressive period after Prague Spring (of 1968). But, the lack of specificity makes Olga’s problem more universal. It allows us to relate with her psychological issues and outcast status from a personal perspective.

The film opens from Olga’s (Michalina Olszanska) troubled, teenage phase of life when she tried to commit suicide. Her taciturn, doctor mother (Klara Meliskova) says, “To commit suicide you need a strong will, something you certainly don’t have”. One silent, static shot of Olga and her mother sitting side by side conveys how the daughter has derived her mother’s distanced looks, curt response and chain-smoking habits. Olga’s acute, introspective examination of her own inner torment plus the harsh treatment in the hands of peers, escalates the existential angst. In the tween years, Olga attempts for suicide, which lands her in a demoralizing mental asylum. Olga faces physical abuses in there (and there’s a hint for sexual abuse). She describes herself as a ‘sexual cripple’, a name the society has given for her homosexuality. In the later years, her pursuit for lesbian relationship only brings more rejection and frustration. The inability to embrace her sexuality (and the ensuing feeling that she might be a weirdo) clearly adds to the woes of existence. After the treatment, she lives alone in the family’s hut. She works as a delivery truck driver and the little quirks & strange looks alienates her from them too. Olga’s murkily defined friendship with heavy-drinker Miroslav seems to be another odd element. In the end, the social ostracism gives the push for Olga to declare: “I, Olga Hepnarova, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death.”
In a literal and metaphorical space, Olga Hepnarova feels she is dwarfed, neglected, and pushed to the fringes by peers
In a literal and metaphorical space, Olga Hepnarova feels she is dwarfed, neglected, and pushed to the fringes by peers
The undeniably great performance of Polish actress Michalina Olszanska and directors Weinreb and Kazda’s meticulously constructed atmosphere of isolation are the primary reasons to watch this powerful, art-house drama. Michalina is considered as go-to Eastern European actress of her generation. While she had many exceptional minor roles, she is barely-off the camera in this breakthrough performance as Olga (Michalina pursued this role and served as co-producer). Olga is the kind of edgy character whose complex psychology demands an actor with a nuanced technique to underplay. Michalina brilliantly captures her character’s frustrated physicality and emotional nature using minimal movements. The slight narrowing of eyes, modulation in mouth muscles, awkward shuffling, and the unpolished vulnerability, emanating from chain-smoking habit subtly reveals her wounded psyche. The little transitional emotions she shows in the frank, intimate sex scenes seems to be an focused attempt to capture the depth of Olga’s feelings. The intense homosexual encounters, where she exhibits both masculine and feminine traits (moves between aggression and timidity), plays a key role in her psychological indisposition. The inability to find love through the sexual encounters makes Olga to proclaim herself as ‘sexual cripple’, who becomes unsure about her own psychological inclinations.

Directors Kazda, Weinreb and their DoP Adam Sikora’s impeccable visualization shows a clear talent. They try to retain authenticity, more in terms of emotions than facts. The reiteration of facts could have only pointed fingers. But, the focus on emotions takes us closer to the loveless, isolated atmosphere. Weinreb and Kazda imbue intensity to the narrative just through Olga’s looks which alternates from piercing stare and diffident gaze. The audience’s curiosity about Olga Hepnarova’s looks are addressed in one sequence when a man asks “Why you always look angry”, to which she responds, “I always look that way”. The close-up shots of Olga staring at something within the frame or at us add to the unsettling nature of her downfall. The lack of clear narrative path and fragmented scenes may disorientate viewers. The central theme is how the individual’s dissolution of emotional and sexual life provoked to commit a gruesome crime. But, the directors never keenly focus on the ‘cause’. The past is only intimated (through few words) and the feelings of alienation are expressed by trapping our attention to the character within the frame. In one scene, the camera looks at the mirror reflection of Olga masturbating while lying on the bed. Her head is truncated in the frame, indicating that it is act to eradicate the loneliness than an act to seek pleasure. Such is the potent approach used by the directors to depict the character’s ambivalent behavior. 
The rejection and frustration Olga faces in sexual pursuit pushes her to eventually declare herself as sexual cripple. The narrative sensitively handles Olga's homosexual identity without ever turning her into martyr of the era's homophobia
The rejection and frustration Olga faces in sexual pursuit pushes her to eventually declare herself as sexual cripple. The narrative sensitively handles Olga's homosexual identity without ever turning her into martyr of the era's homophobia
But, since this is a film about a mass murderer, the narrative after the grievous act jettisons the subjective approach. Director Weinreb stated in an interview, “We tried to find a balance, both in terms of our perspective and the facts we knew. There was a lot we didn't know about Olga, it's impossible to know everything. For us her crime will always have the subtext of something irrational”. While it seems to be a sensible approach, this last 25 minutes doesn’t give the profound dramatic depth we expect. The court-room scenes become a very clinical study of the subject as it struggles to find a wider meaning for the framework. However, the film ends with couple of chilling, powerful shots. The final shot of Olga’s family calmly sitting around the dining table once again provokes us to deeply reflect on the girl’s marginalization and crimes. We can’t stop relating the connection between the placid, in-communicative atmosphere and an individual’s unnerving thoughts & fantasies. It is the one of many shots that powerfully instills a contemporary relevance to the death-wish of a past generation’s Prague woman.    

I, Olga Hepnarova (100 minutes) is a solidly crafted character study of Czech mass murderer. Its ‘show-and-suggest’ approach and the mesmerizing central performance will definitely engross art-house movie-lovers. 

About Author - 

Arun Kumar is an ardent cinephile, who finds solace by exploring and learning from the unique works of the cinematic art. He believes in the shared-dream experience of cinema and tries to share those thoughts in the best possible way. He blogs at Passion for Movies and 'Creofire'.

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I, Olga Hepnarova (2016) Trailer (YouTube)

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