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BERLINALE 2016 Panorama

I, Olga Hepnarová: One versus all


- BERLIN 2016: The exceptionally mature debut feature by the up-and-coming Czech filmmakers Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda plunges into the mindscape of the perpetrator of some major mass killings in Czechoslovakia in 1973

I, Olga Hepnarová: One versus all
Michalina Olszańska in I, Olga Hepnarová

“The realisation of this film involved a relatively large personal and financial loss, in addition to lost time,” says Tomáš Weinreb, the co-director and co-writer of I, Olga Hepnarová [+see also:
making of
interview: Tomáš Weinreb, Petr Kazda
film profile
; along with his colleague Petr Kazda, he had been working on the film since 2009. Despite many hurdles, this duo of budding Czech filmmakers managed to finish what they call their existential drama in time to be picked for the Berlinale, securing the prestigious position of being the opening title in the Panorama section, to boot. As the subject matter, they chose to plunge into the mindscape of the perpetrator of some major mass killings in Czechoslovakia in 1973, 22-year-old recluse Olga Hepnarová.

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Hepnarová’s transgressive act was aimed at the whole of society, which she felt like a victim of. Her intention was for her act to enter the history books as a warning and preventive measure. However, the labels her name is attached to nowadays are a mass murderer and the last woman to be hanged in Czechoslovakia. Deviating from the pop-culture conventions of serial-killer portraits and exploitation, Weinreb and Kazda established their reconstruction as an introspective and rather unbiased psychological film with an existential aura to it.

The filmmakers frame the story in self-destructive behaviour, starting with Hepnarová’s failed suicide attempt, followed by the tragedy itself and the fulfilment of her wish to die, through capital punishment. Even though the plot trajectory seems linear, the nature and form of the directors’ investigation unspools in a series of dramatised, yet seamlessly interwoven, vignettes: her stays in the asylum, leaving home, her isolation, failed attempts at love and sexual encounters, the trial and beyond.

The chronological order is not the only binding agent: the audience can also grab onto the internal logic of the film’s central non-conformist, a social outcast who is nonetheless spared of any explicit accusation of being an enforcer of her own ostracisation. This approach contributes to our total immersion in Olga’s tumultuous micro-universe. Kazda and Weinreb explore her innermost life and thoughts whilst not overlooking the setting, with the carefully lit period set designs, in addition to Adam Sikoras’ spellbinding and atmospheric monochrome cinematography. The meticulously revived spirit of 1970s normalisation presents a crucial backdrop not only for Olga’s psychosis, but also for the tribulations of her life as a lesbian, which may or may not have been a factor. The full-fledged internal struggle forces viewers to question her motives, society’s share of the blame and Hepnarová’s state of mind. 

As in the case of other serial killers, the enigma of Hepnarová also piques and fuels our curiosity to take a peek beneath her exterior. In a compelling performance, Polish actress Michalina Olszańska brings Olga to life on the screen as a decadent intellectual, a tortured soul. Her discourse reflects her preoccupation with Kafka, Camus and Freud, and Olga’s mode of thinking is not the only non-conformist feature here: her hermit-like existence and self-inflicted isolation (Hepnarová reportedly never smiled; neither does Olszańska) are brought out by the predominantly static frames with some occasional tight panning and the use of depth, which accentuates her literal and figurative disconnection from the reality around her. The directors have delivered an exceptionally mature and captivating feature debut.

I, Olga Hepnarová was produced by Kazda and Weinreb’s production company, Black Balance, and co-produced by Polish outfit Media Brigade, Slovakia’s ALEF Film & Media, the Czech Republic’s Love.FRAME, Spoon, Barrandov Studios, Michael Samuelson Lighting Prague, FAMU, French outfit Arizona Productions, and Poland’s Odra-Film. The project was supported by the Slovak Audiovisual Fund, the Czech State Cinematography Fund and the Polish Film Institute. Festivals are being handled by Pascale Ramonda, while Arizona Distribution ensures the international sales.

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