I, Olga (Já, Olga Hepnarová)

Czech Republic (2016) Dirs. Petr Kazda & Tomás Weinreb

“I know I’m a psycho but an enlightened one.”

Reading the mind of a murderer will not make for an easy experience, as I am sure any psychologist will agree, though it is not always the case that the subject is pure evil. If their acts are vengeful questions need to be asked what made them that way, but that also means others accepting responsibility too.

Olga Hepnarová (Michalina Olszańska) is finding life a struggle. Growing up in a strict household under her uncaring mother (Klára Melísková) where she beaten and abused by her family, Olga also spent time in a children’s psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt where she was also bullied. Now in her late teens, Olga finds work but can’t keep jobs whilst relationships are even harder to sustain.

Working as a van driver, Olga dates a colleague Jitka (Marika Soposká) but she already has a girlfriend and many other lovers. After they split, Olga is confused about her inability to love and her depression spirals out of control. After being denied help and mistreated once too often, Olga finally hits back at society, running down and killing eight people, for which she is sentenced to death.  

Unfortunately it was necessary to pretty much detail the entire plot complete with spoiler conclusion in the synopsis, as I, Olga is based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia in 1973. This infamy is not enough to make Olga Hepnarová a mere footnote in Czech history, as we discover a litany of physical and psychological vicissitudes that raise many questions.

Being Autistic and watching period films with characters displaying certain traits that are deemed odd by society, I’ve often likened their behaviour to Autism, an almost unknown condition back then. I won’t deny I had my suspicions about Olga, but reading about her life, she may have been undiagnosed as being on the spectrum.

Let me assure you however that not all Autistic people are likely to commit cold-blooded murder. From what we are told here courtesy of co-directors Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, Olga in many ways might be justified in wanting to bite back at a world that has never loved her or tried to understand her, though I stress “might”.

The film opens with Olga and her mother following her medication overdose, but rather than be concerned and fraught with worry, her mother is disdainful and indifferent. “To commit suicide you need a strong will, something you certainly don’t have,” Olga is told curtly. In the next shot, Olga goes into a room, followed by her father (Viktor Vrabec) who leaves a minute later, implying the worst and most likely accurately too.

Maybe it is her inability to communicate and express herself in an open and “socially acceptable” way, but Olga seems to be a lightning rod for bullies and abusers all her life. Sporting a permanently sullen, gaunt appearance, a gangly body over which she never dresses in a feminine way, and her piercing staring eyes, Olga doesn’t give off friendly vibe yet she is enough of an enigma to get some attention from both sexes.  

Home for Olga is a DIY hut in the woods, supplied and furnished by her mother but not out of love but seemingly out of duty in the “at least it gets her out of my way” kind. Olga has little except books, and waits for rain to rinse her laundry; the solitude works for her but the loneliness doesn’t though help isn’t forthcoming. She eventually sells the hut to buy a car and moves in to the dorm of her new workplace but this doesn’t help improve her depressive state.

Eventually, Olga has enough of being judged, misjudged, ignored, pushed about, toyed with and abused. She writes a letter to the media declaring her intention to extract revenge on a society that has driven her to this, positing herself as martyr for the bullied and the misunderstood with the chilling closing “I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death.”

Shot in melancholic monochrome, the impression for this is not just to create a stark mood but also to make it look artistic and give it some kind of gravitas. If this were the case Kazda and Weinreb have done themselves and the story a disservice. Not that the grey imagery and sparse photography doesn’t work, it does and the film would be more insincere if shot in colour, but this is an instance when needing to understand the main character and sensitivity should be a primary objective.

Reportedly the original cut was 2 ½ hours long which was then reduced to 105-minutes, evident by the narrative jumping ahead and leaving many gaps in the story, only to be referenced later without context. Thus we are left with a jaunty sketch to follow Olga’s path to vengeance, leaving her without the necessary empathy from the audience.

Whatever damage is done by the drastic culling of material, compensation comes from the astonishing portrayal of Olga from Michalina Olszańska, an arresting presence from beginning to end. Resembling Leon-era Natalie Portman with her bob hair cut, this slight figure possesses an aura of tremendous magnetic, raw power, suffused with an intuitive sense of nuance in her every movement, reaction, and moment of forlorn introspection.

I defy anyone not to be mesmerised as Olga eloquently accuses the system in court with idealistic confidence, or feel a chill from her tortured screams of terror when she is taken to the gallows, thanks to Olszańska’s impeccable essaying of this tragic figure.

Despite not feeling sufficiently or comprehensively informed about Olga Hepnarová as a person, rarely have I ever felt haunted by such a complex and for me, semi-relatable character. After watching the flawed but compelling I, Olga, we can conclude that with bullying still existing and those who retaliate still punished, Olga may sadly be a martyr in vain after all.