Olga Hepnarová wanted to leave a mark, and so she would. On July 7, 1973, she drove a truck through a crowd of Prague dwellers awaiting ground transportation at a tram stop, killing 8 and injuring 12 — an occurrence of seemingly inexplicable violence. In the months ahead, the trial, which led to Olga being the final victim of short drop hanging in Czechoslovakia, revealed the aggressor’s actions as deliberate and premeditated, triggered by poor mental health and deep-rooted misanthropy. In a personal letter relayed to two local newspapers, Hepnarová stated:
“I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A woman destroyed by people…I have a choice — to kill myself or to kill others. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death.”
Now comes the biopic I, Olga Hepnarová, screening as part of the Cinedelphia Film Festival on Wednesday, April 26th, which tics all the boxes of a true-crime account, but recedes from merely dramatizing the tragedy and subsequent trial in favor of conveying the inner workings of a tortured soul resigned to living as a walking, breathing automaton.
Portrayed as a victim of maternal frigidity, (implied) paternal beatings, and peer bullying, I, Olga… systematically charts the eponymous anti-heroine’s life, from her lonely teenaged years in a psychiatric facility — opening on an in-hospital suicide attempt via. excessive Meprobamate intake — right up to the moment of her execution at age 23. The interim exhibits Olga growing increasingly hostile toward others, embracing her pessimistic philosophies and debating as to whether or not she was meant for this world. Her contempt for human interaction grows so profound that, for much of the first hour, her dwelling is a drab, run-down hut on the fringes of civilization, a gas powered space heater representing the sole outlet of warmth amid the frigid Czech Winter. It’s as if the titular Mouchette of Robert Bresson’s film chose life over death, the seed of her anti-sociality blossoming into a full, thorny bloom. In a Bressonian flourish, Olga writes:
“I don’t see myself as high as to stand again them. Only my hatred will be against them. Hatred that won’t hurt anybody, except perhaps me myself.”
Michalina Olszanska, whose talents are on display in the recent Janus Films release The Lure (also screening as part of the Cinedelphia Film Festival), presents Olga as an Anna Karina-bobbed, dagger-eyed outcast, convinced society has poisoned her life, driven to self-imposed isolation, and all too willing to withdraw into her own headspace — these attitudinal circumstances manifest as a byproduct of Olga’s struggle with mental illness, itself the yield of systematic abuse and, possibly, poor professional care.
Olszanska’s performance, a persisting strain of subdued brooding punctuated by the occasional outburst, weaves these potentially off-putting facets together, generating the kind of grotesque commitment and magnetism one might associate with Isabelle Adjani; her evocation of Olga’s desperate existence charges the movie up with immediacy and a touch of human suspense. It’s an intensely physical performance, as Olszanska postures a rigid stance and peculiar walk throughout, her bodily gestures and movements suggesting an alien’s well-rehearsed imitation of human behavior. She makes it hard for us to care about Olga — by design, of course — but dares us to not be compelled.
What little personal contact Olga engages in is mostly confined to transient hookups with women, pursuits that arise, one suspects, out of an attempt to make (understand?) human connection. (Her sole nonsexual relationship is with a kindly but troubled co-worker who, despite Olga’s standoffish quietude, offers paternal comfort and human understanding; as depicted, he’s perhaps the most positive force in her life, even striving to provide her with the psychiatric care she so desperately needs.) More interesting/problematic is the film’s ambivalence toward Olga’s pursuit of physical pleasure; the sex Olga participates in, during two frank scenes marked by Olszanska’s feral intensity, is innately primal, yet visualized as ritualistic and defiantly cold, courtesy of the camera’s dispassionate gaze. Herein, the movie could’ve wandered into thorny issues of representation, but wisely averts potentially offensive pop-psychology by jettisoning overt associations between Olga’s libidinal desires/lesbianism and escalating murderous impulses. What’s missing, however, is a psychological understanding of how sex or possible romance affects her. Why does she pursue these encounters in spite of her misanthropy? Is this a sincere attempt at grounding herself? What do these encounters mean to her? How does the discovery of her sexuality change her? (There’s hardly an inkling of Olga as a sexual being prior to her connection with a co-worker.)
Helmed by first-time feature directors Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, I, Olga… sports a strong sense of formal assurance and austerity, with a visual playbook relying so heavily on stillness that it renders the seemingly mundane act of a camera pan or tilt as jolting. Photographed in stunning monochrome by Adam Sikora — whose previous credits include two Skolimowski films, Four Nights with Anna and Essential Killing — the detached, non-fussy camera-style, leaning heavily on static compositions and long takes, complements Olga’s chilly demeanor, with some scenes staged to invoke a docu-realist vibe.
Less proficient, however, is Kazda and Weinreb’s storytelling; the movie’s deliberate pacing is fitting and absorbing, but Olga only occasionally scratches the surface of history, resulting in the picture neglecting to proffer much particularly enlightening about its subject — the now-mythic imploding loner drifting toward violence — or the central tragedy. Kazda and Weinreb fashion an elemental, procedural narrative, examining how an aggressor’s atrocities might be sourced from an upbringing wherein compassion is absent and casual acts of cruelty aggravate existing inner turmoil, with their detached, observational style focusing more on “documenting” their subject as opposed to commenting on her. Furthermore, the catalyst behind the filmmaking enterprise remains elusive, even questionable; Olszanska appears to have a better handle on what she wants to do with Olga than either Kazda or Weinreb. More potently critical, however, are the narrative’s fringe observations, suggesting a social irresponsibility in neglecting (and, later, terminating) someone such as Olga; a most scathing instance being a scene wherein a doctor, upon learning Olga doesn’t “belong to [his] district”, rejects her.
I, Olga Hepnarová wanders its way into American arthouses at an eerily pertinent time, as recent acts of inexplicable violence, such as last year’s Nice attack, linger in the collective conscious; this grants an extra-textual relevance to Kazda and Weinreb’s film, which will likely generate a more provocative viewing experience for some moviegoers. Moreover, there are very few concessions toward “broad commercial appeal” in I, Olga… and, in a time of increasing homogeny in the foreign films that find domestic distribution, that’s something to be savored. Even with its dramatic shortcomings, I Olga Hepnarová is, undoubtedly, one of the more audacious foreign imports in a while and it’d be simply foolish to permit reservations to devalue the grandeur of the film’s chief merit: Michalina Olszanska. She’s doesn’t just elevate the movie; she is the movie.
I, Olga Hepnarová will have its Philly premiere at PhilaMOCA, as part of the Cinedelphia Film Festival, on Wednesday, April 26th at 7:30pm.The screening has been programmed by film critic Travis Crawford, who will provide an introduction prior to the screening. You can read his piece on the film here. Event details and tickets here.