Audiences are unlikely to know the story of Olga Hepnarová, the last woman to ever be given the death sentence in Czechoslovakia. They are also unlikely to have heard of young Polish actress Michalina Olszańska, who gives a stunning performance as Hepnarová in this unflinching feature, co-directed by Tomãs Weinreb and Petr Kazda. Introduced to Olga as a troubled young girl, beaten down by familial neglect and a world she can’t connect with, we watch her slowly and painfully turn into the broken young woman who commits a terrible crime. That isn’t to say I, Olga seeks to justify what Hepnarová did, but rather, it seeks to find the human story behind an inhumane act.
Weinreb and Kazda appear to play a game with the viewer: through stylistic choices reminiscent of the French New Wave movement in the 60s, the audience is drawn in closer to Olga, quite literally due to the proliferation of close-ups throughout the film, only to be pushed back again and reminded of how incomprehensible her crime is. In real life, Olga wrote a letter to the press explaining her actions and this is included in the narrative, but the real explanation (if one can call it that) is carried over the course of the movie through Olszańska’s raw portrayal. Every twitch of her face and flicker in her eyes is caught in stark black and white as the camera gets studiously close. One area where Olga is painted as being successful is in her sex life; her lesbianism does not seem to cause any consternation in 1970s Soviet Czechoslovakia, and provides some welcome moments of warmth in an otherwise difficult and discomforting feature. Discomforting not necessarily because of what Olga does, but because the picture does not cast a judgement on her in the way audiences may expect.
The directors have a background in documentaries, and this comes through in the way viewers are at times placed firmly in the position of observer. But this is not a documentary. It’s a thoughtful reflection on a woman’s life, and in many ways, a challenge to the way we think about good and evil. It will stay in the mind long afterwards, and is a testament to the talent of all involved.
I, Olga is released in select cinemas on 18th November 2016.
Read our interview with actress Michalina Olszańska and director Tomãs Weinreb here.
Watch the trailer for I, Olga here: