I, Olga Hepnarová
Written and directed by Tomáš Weinreb, Petr Kazda. Starring Michalina Olszańska, Marika Šoposká, Klára Melíšková, Petra Nesvačilová, Jan Novotný, Lukáš Bech, Juraj Nvota, Pavel Neškudla, Gabriela Míčová, Marta Mazurek, Roman Zach, Ondřej Malý, Martin Pechlát, Malwina Turek, Magdaléna Borová, Zuzana Stavná, Martin Finger, Martina Eliášová, Viktor Vrabec.
On July 10th, 1973, 22-year-old truck driver Olga Hepnarová veered off a central Prague street and onto the sidewalk, running over a group of about two dozen people waiting for a tram. She killed eight people, injuring abother 12.
There was no question about the nature of what happened: days earlier, Hepnarová sent letters to two newspapers detailing her plans, and at the scene she calmly explained her actions to responding police officers.
At her trial, Hepnarová read from a prepared speech that revealed her motivations, claiming to be a victim of bullying who was lashing out at society. She showed no remorse for the killings, and was hanged two years later – the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia.
There’s a lot of fine work in the new Czech-Slovak-Polish-French biopic I, Olga Hepnarová, from debut directors Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda, who also authored the script.
But the finest moments are the climactic scenes that detail the murders and their aftermath. These real events are depicted with a dressed-down, brutal honesty; Hepnarová’s courtroom speech, which the film takes its title from, is even read from verbatim:
“My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to the death penalty.”
The previous 90 minutes of the movie, however – while all filmed through the same lens – feel fraudulent by comparison: instead of telling Hepnarová’s story, the filmmakers drown us in a montage of art-film vignettes that neither illuminate nor involve.
Were this not a true story about a deranged killer, it might be mistaken for an authentic recreation of late-60s Radley Metzger erotica, complete with fetishistic depictions of lesbian sex. Even with those scenes, it’s a bore, though cinematographer Adam Sikora’s gorgeous black & white photography is so striking the visuals often keep our attention when the story fails to do so.
If you isolated all the individual shots in I, Olga Hepnarová and re-arranged them by type, you might get roughly 30 minutes of close-ups of lead actress Michalina Olszańska staring off into the distance, scowling, awkwardly taking a drag from a cigarette. So much smoke fills the screen throughout the movie that you might involuntarily gag.
Polish actress Olszańska’s performance is something else: her Hepnarová is visibly batty throughout every frame of the film, eyes darting and burning through anyone she looks at, feet punishing the ground with every step she takes.
It’s a brave performance, and might be well-suited in another production. But it’s completely out of tune with the directors’ matter-of-fact, Jarmusch-like vision of the gloom-and-doom world this killer inhabits.
Through fractured sketches in place of a storyline, we gather basic details about Hepnarová’s life leading up to the fatal event: there’s an unsympathetic mother (Klára Melíšková), a co-worker who Olga develops an intimate relationship with (Marika Šoposká), an older man who she starts a more conventional relationship with (Martin Pechlát).
Each of these characters, the film suggests, ultimately fails Hepnarová. As does Czech society in general, represented through employers, authority figures, and doctors briefly portrayed by Ondřej Malý and Martin Finger. There is no sympathetic presence here, and no hope in this world.
Through these glasses, the mass-murder conclusion is almost a logical outcome. By refusing to offer any narrative perspective, the filmmakers force us to identify with the killer, her crazed courtroom speech at the climax becoming an impassioned anti-bullying plea, the cry of a martyr.
Unlike a Taxi Driver, or the more recent Czech film Pouta, there is no redeeming value in witnessing Hepnarová’s descent into madness, and what the film does finally say is not just misguided but morally objectionable. Ultimately, this great-looking, well-made film is as senseless as the horrifying crime it depicts.
Note: you can currently catch I, Olga Hepnarová with English subtitles in Prague at Cinema City Slovanský dům, Kino Aero, and Kino Světozor.