For any society, reckoning with the actions of its most troubled members is nigh impossible.
Irrationality prevents the existence of satisfactory answers when an individual resorts to violence against others as a vengeful exteriorization of internal chaos. Taking on the life and eventual death of a young woman in 1970s Czechoslovakia who drove a vehicle into a crowd of people, Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda’s debut feature, I, Olga Hepnarová, grapples with the inherently unlikeable traits of a character driven to kill.
Living under communism as a lesbian, Olga Hepnarová was a seemingly unremarkable citizen—but in her mind, a murderous worldview was brewing. Her rationalization of retribution against a world that had done nothing but bully and humiliate her is what makes her transition from hidden victim to remorseless criminal so disturbing, captivating and deeply sorrowful. Olga Hepnarová became the last woman to be sentenced to the death penalty in Czechoslovakia—a punishment she herself requested to give lasting impact to her case.
Best described as We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Ida, thematically and aesthetically speaking, I, Olga Hepnarová flaunts graceful black-and-white cinematography that accentuates the period atmosphere—a brave decision for the first-time feature directors dealing with a polemic and infamous figure. In the title role, Polish rising star Michalina Olszanska (seen earlier this year as a man-eating mermaid in Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s The Lure), graces the screen with a performance that’s at times unnervingly stoic and others painfully powerless. Inexcusable as Olga Hepnarová’s deadly behavior was, Weinreb and Kazda render her neither as mentally ill nor as a purely evil creature, but instead opted to focus on the nuances of a life paved with disappointments and devoid of the emotional tools needed to resolve them.
To call I, Olga Hepnarová complex would be an understatement. Fresh off the film’s premiere in the Panorama section of the 2016 Berlinale and looking forward to its U.S. theatrical release, the Czech duo spoke with MovieMaker about the delicate nature of their first full-length project, and why they consider it an “existential drama” above all else.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why did you decide to make this story your narrative debut, considering that it is not the easiest of projects to make: a period piece about a real life murderer?
Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda (TW & PK): We had to fight against people mistrusting us. We continually had to defend ourselves and explain that we didn’t want to make a film about a mass murderer, but an existential drama. We were not interested in sensationalism, we were not going to glorify the murderer in our film; our intention was just to show a human being and her dramatic fate. Even our visual concept of the film, with black and white and static images, was controversial to some. Our feeling from the beginning was that it must be in black and white. Our director of photography Adam Sikora agreed. Our uncompromising standpoint in how the film should look, together with mistrust of a debut so artistic, led many to say, “You will never make this film.”
MM: Were you worried about the reaction from audiences in the Czech Republic, as they know the story?
TW & PK: It was important to keep all the victims of this tragedy in our head and heart while making the film, but with an ideology of creating discussion and healing on both sides.
MM: Tell me about working with Michalina Olszanska. I had seen her in The Lure before this, but hadn’t known that she spoke Czech. Her role as Olga is unsettling and magnificently complex.
TW & PK: At the beginning it was difficult, but when we got clear with Michalina during the first week of shooting about the attitude and personality of the character, the rest was easy. Michalina simply immersed herself in Olga and became Olga.
MM: The psychology of the character is something that comes across in the film in a powerful way. The pragmatic and rational way in which she justifies her crime is fascinating. What conversations did you have with Michalina to get this across?
TW & PK: Michalina agreed with us that the issue was not about whether Olga is ill or not, but to focus on revealing the character we had written in the script. Michalina’s powers of concentration were incredible and we very much enjoyed working with her. It’s a real advantage for us when you don’t have to explain every little thing. She understood us. She understood the character. We often dug deep into her with just a few sentences, words or looks. It’s important as an actor to be strong inside, or rather to conceal their emotions. They can then break out to the more extreme aspects of the character, which Michalina did so well.
MM: When we see films about people that commit evil crimes, audiences expect them to be punished or for them to show regret, but there is no empathy in Olga. How do you punish a person that wants to use the punishment to prove her point?
TW & PK: We always tried to be and yet not be with Olga Hepnarová. 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 was impossible to know everything. For us, her crime will always have the subtext of something irrational. Most of the things in the film we put there deliberately: the narrative structure as a whole, for example. But Olga was and is still remembered as a murderer. We did not want to excuse her of that reality.
MM: Tell me about the production design, creating 1970s Czechoslovakia on what I assume was not a large budget. What elements did you focus on and what did you have to give up for budget reasons?
TW & PK: We love Sasa Kozak, our set designer. He is an older guy, but still fresh—he worked also on projects with Sokurov and many influential filmmakers. The budget was actually not that small, compared to many other locally made films. We created the soft, clear visuals we wanted to convey the story.
MM: Do you think the subject matter made it more difficult to finance?
TW & PK: The film was a very long journey, but we made it, and that was the most essential thing for us. We will take the things we learned on this first film and use them in our second to good effect.
MM: What sort of historical research did you and how much in the film was fictional? Were there detailed accounts of Olga’s behavior, her ideas and her life in general?
TW & PK: A biography by Roman Cílek helped us a lot. It kicked us off, as we didn’t know enough about the case in the beginning. His book is such a great work of nonfiction literature. We personally talked to many people who had encountered Olga, both in a tragic way and people who just knew her casually. We were always trying to get more for the script: emotions, a memory, a fragment remaining in the mind of these people after so many years. Čestmír Kozar, the author of the website Pantharei, dedicated to the case of Olga Hepnarová, helped us a lot, too. He knows her story very well. We read many pages of police and court documents. This helped us with the crime, but learning about her before that was not always easy.
MM: How taboo was the subject of homosexuality in 1970s Czechoslovakia and why was important for you to portray that aspect of Olga’s life?
TW & PK: Being a lesbian in Czechoslovakia during the ’70s wasn’t easy but it was also an everyday reality for many people. Olga’s sexual orientation was so obvious that we had no need or desire to push her lesbianism too much during the course of the narrative. That said, the perception of this issue tends to vary widely among viewers. Being a member of a sexual minority was part of her life. Of course Olga was dealing with a range of other problems as well. She was inclined toward solitude, but couldn’t handle being completely alone. Our film is a great extent about lack of understanding. We call it an existential drama. What’s more, Olga ended up in a state that led to her inability to accept even the slightest bit of help.
MM: In your eyes, was Olga a victim of the system or her environment? Or was her vision of her reality worse than the actual reality? In other words, did she perceive of her life as worse than it actually was?
TW & PK: That is the question. The biggest challenge was to make a film about your question with no strict answer. MM
I, Olga Hepnarová opened in theaters March 24, 2017, courtesy of Outsider Pictures and Strand Releasing.