“The question of the individual and society is more topical now than ever before”
by Martin Kudláč
- BERLIN 2016: Czech directors Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda talk about their difficult-to-make feature debut, I, Olga Hepnarová, the opening film of the Panorama at the Berlinale
The Czech creative duo consisting of Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda prepares scripts, directs and produces film projects. Both studied at Prague’s FAMU: Kazda focused on screenwriting, while Weinreb did his studies in documentary film. Together, they have shot several student films and written feature scripts, and in 2011 they founded their own production outfit, Black Balance. I, Olga Hepnarová [+see also:
interview: Tomáš Weinreb, Petr Kazda
film profile] is their feature debut.
Cineuropa: Why make a film about the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia?
Tomáš Weinreb: We wanted primarily to tackle the fate of Olga, which people in the Czech Republic and Slovakia might not know about. That extreme situation was the primary impetus for us, and then Petr and I contacted Roman Cílek, who helped us with the facts around the story. We found that interesting – the situations, how Olga behaves in terms of having kind of an abnormality… Though we have never forgotten about the victims. We knew it was important to think about them, and we also wanted to avoid any kind of tabloid-type approach. She was and still is a murderer. We also made this film as a kind of prevention.
Petr Kazda: The circumstances of the act were what drew us to Hepnarová, and also the way in which she excused what she did. I perceived it from a personal point of view, but also from the perspective of these things that exist between a person and society, especially at her age, from puberty to being 22 years old. These things are universal: coming of age and the struggle to come to terms with the world.
Recent Czech cinema has been paying close attention to figures from history, such as Jan Palach in the case of Burning Bush [+see also:
film profile] or, more recently, Lída Baarová in the film of the same name.
TW: It was not our intention to get involved in any sort of trend. The film swings between a biography and our opinion, how we perceive this figure, and our commentary on capital punishment... We call the film an existentialist drama, and there is not a direct nemesis in this case, unlike in a classic drama – you do not have any antagonism in the regular sense of the word. The existential fate in the film revolves around Olga's anxiety, isolation and connection with her innermost feelings, on the outside of society. The protagonist carries the antagonism within her, and in part, the antagonism is also caused by society. It is existentialist in the sense that if somebody decides to do such a thing based on their own personal moral codes, as defined by themselves, then this happens. And the question of the individual and society is more topical now than ever before, but today it is more closely tied to religion or politics, which was not really the case for Hepnarová.
What was the research process like?
TW: Besides the literature, we tried to meet people who had been around Hepnarová, but they were not very open about her. They had more of a sort of feeling or a memory, which was not very clear; we tried to incorporate into the film what we sensed from them in order to gain as much authenticity as possible, but in terms of emotions, rather than facts, because we couldn’t discover the real circumstances. We did not meet the surviving victims; we tried to contact Olga Hepnarová’s family, and we spoke to her sister. The thing about this story is that you cannot simply point a finger at somebody.
The film also hinges on the representation of a sexual minority.
TW: Well, our main intention was always to tell her story, but at the same time, the corporeality and inability to find a partner, especially at that time, was an integral part of her story. And the theme that could have been accentuated, the difficult lesbian life of Olga Hepnarová in the 1970s, was not the primary goal. We did not have primary goals or loglines. This was also a problem when we tried to secure funding, since there was not a clear track to follow in the script, and anybody could always complain that the project did not have one clear theme. But sure, her emotional and sexual life was the key, as it is in everybody’s life. If you are not happy and you have some psychological indisposition, that is a dangerous combination.
How did France and Poland come on board?
TW: There is a long history of those countries being behind the project. Basically, Poland gave us the leading actress. We knew right away that we wanted the protagonist to be played by somebody from outside the Czech Republic. The selection there is bigger, and typology-wise, we found three actresses that were more similar to Hepnarová than those in the Czech Republic. We also knew that Poland was capable of backing projects that it believes in. This is more difficult in our country. France got on board via Guillaume de Seille, with whom we consulted on the project during the writing, and he loved the first cut and entered as a co-producer. And Slovakia was a logical choice, since it is a Czechoslovakian matter. We also used music by Slovak composer Marián Varga, of Collegium Musicum, stuff from his best album of the 1970s, and quite an important supporting role is carried out by Slovakian actor Juraj Nvota. We had to sacrifice a lot of our personal time and money, and survive and live off a bare minimum in order to fully focus on the film and finish it.
The locations and set design are impressive.
TW: We had an excellent architect, Alexander Kozák, who acquired a great deal of experience at Barrandov Studios, working with the likes of František Vláčil and Alexander Sokurov. He helped us with the scouting of locations, mostly in Poland, around Wroclaw. The combination of the black-and-white cinematography, Kozák, the lighting and the Polish sets enabled us to create exactly what we wanted. We had nine shooting days in the Czech Republic, two in Slovakia and 18 in Poland.