In 1973, a 22 year old Czechoslovakian girl intentionally drove her truck into a crowd of oblivious victims who were waiting for the tram. Of the twenty people she hit, eight died and twelve were seriously injured. That girl’s name was Olga Hepnarová, she was the last woman to ever be executed in Czechoslovakia. In their bold debut feature film, Já, Olga Hepnarová (2016) aka I, Olga Hepnarová, Czech writers-directors Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda explore Olga’s complex life and the things that may have driven her to commit mass murder.
Olga, played by the brilliant Michalina Olszanska, was an outcast who was unable to form healthy, long-lasting connections to other people. In the film, we see her beaten and bullied by peers, put down by her mother, and left by romantic partners. Olga was also a lesbian, which possibly made it even harder for her to get close to people. She referred to herself as a Prügelknabe, which translates to “victim of bullying.” The bullying began at a very early age and took such a toll on her mentally that it ultimately lead to the violent act she committed on July 10th, 1973. Before she carried out her plans, she mailed letters to two different newspapers in Prague. The letters arrived a day after the incident and included the following excerpt: “I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A Woman destroyed by people. I have no choice — to kill myself or to kill others. I choose to avenge my haters. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide victim. Society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your own bestiality, sentence you to death.”
Before she was sentenced at her trial, she told the judge she committed the act with revenge as her motive and requested the death penalty. She was executed in 1975 by hanging and was the last woman to be sentenced to death in Czechoslovakia.
I, Olga Hepnarová is a remarkable debut feature film from Weinreb and Kazda. The duo have described the film as an existential drama, which is appropriate because it is easy to see how the audience may experience conflicting thoughts about Olga once the film is over. On one hand, it is plain to see that she was a victim of other people’s cruelty, but on the other, her violent actions resulted in the deaths of eight people. Weinreb and Kazda have provided us with a window into what her day-to-day life must have been like: a life consumed by anger, pain, and loneliness. They allow Olga’s story to unfold in a way that doesn’t demonize her so we can identify with her struggles without condoning her violent actions.
Weinreb and Kazda began working on this project in 2009 but were unable to finish it due to personal and financial issues, until they received additional financial aid from Poland, France, and Slovakia. Initially, the film was intended to be a documentary, but the directors had a very difficult time finding locals who were comfortable speaking about Olga or the tragedy she caused. Eventually, the directors contacted Roman Cílek, author of the book Olga Hepnarová. Not only did Cílek agree to meet with them, he also provided them with facts about Olga’s life for their script.
Polish actress Michalina Olszanska gives a powerful performance as Olga. Olszanska has the unique ability to remain cold and distant while still allowing the audience to relate to some of the issues Olga deals with throughout the film — loneliness probably being the most universal. In a video recorded for the Czech premiere of the film, Olszanska addressed the film’s audience: “I’m aware of the fact that this story was and still is painful for you. What we really need to explain is that we never tried to justify Olga. She is just a symbol. This story could have happened to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. I will hope that such films will help us understand that the most important thing in life is to show love to those who really need it.”
The film is made even more captivating by Adam Sikora’s striking black and white cinematography along with Alexander Kozák’s art direction. Most of the principal photography took place in Poland in order to portray 1970s Prague, although there were a handful of shooting days in the Czech Republic, as well as Slovakia. Weinreb and Kazda also decided not include a musical score for the film. There is only one scene that features music: an upbeat song plays at a bar as we get to see Olga briefly come out of her shell. Otherwise, the decision to make the rest of the film without a score makes more of an impact than any added musical composition would have.
The film first premiered when it opened the Panorama section of this year’s Berlin Film Festival. It has continued to do very well on the festival circuit, landing Weinreb and Kazda the award for Best Direction at Bulgaria’s Sofia International Film Festival and much deserved critical acclaim for the film itself and Olszanska’s performance. While there is still no official word on whether or not the film will find a US distribution deal. it seems very likely that it is well on its way to securing one. I, Olga Hepnarová is a very special film and one hell of a debut that should not be missed.