With no music and a relentless rhythm of suffering, this real-life Czech drama opened the Berlinale Film Festival in 2016, recreating the brutally austere environment of the time. I, Olga Hepnarová, is a black and white movie that talks about a young and lonely outsider from Czech Republic, who couldn’t play the part society desired from her. Throughout the film we get to know the human being behind the mass murders happened in 1970, without glorifying or downplaying the terrible crime she committed, but with the will of understanding in a better way what she was feeling as an outsider. We speak to writers and directors of the movie, Tomás Weinreb and Petr Kazda.
The film is based on a real happening. Why did you decide to revisit the tragic story of Olga Hepnarová?
Thanks to the film, the path and fate that led to the troubled deeds of Olga Hepnarová have become the subject of intense discussion. With this film we wanted to pose questions without clear answers, since we feel that these cases are impossible to judge categorically, and it worked. Even 43 years after the fact, our author's view of the character of Olga is current, with a strong link to today, which is why the film resonates and has seen success not only in the Czech Republic but abroad as well.
The topic of the movie is a quite difficult one. Can you explain why it’s almost a taboo in Czech Republic?
What happened is a very personal topic for Czech people, they were shocked after Olga's attack. It was not a detective film. Few people believed that we didn't wish to defend a mass murderer but to film a raw, existential drama.
With that in mind, how was the film received? What were the reactions to it?
The movie received many viewers, opinions, reviews, articles and talks all around the world. All mixed. For example we were surprised from the reactions of Czech people; some of them said or wrote we made lesbian soft porn. The feedbacks from the rest of the world were different instead.
How did you make sure you got enough trustworthy information to depict a representative image?
We tried to get as much information as we could. We drew mostly from the book by Roman Cílek, which is a very high-quality factual account. We also had access to the court transcripts, and we consulted with Čestmír Kozar, a Czech Hepnarologist, if you can call him that. We both met with people who knew Olga over longer periods, such as her friend Miroslav, as well as those who interacted with Olga only a few times. It was interesting to see how much the tragedy continues to affect them even after so many years. When we met, they often didn't say specific information so much as they expressed strong emotions. To your question, we can't be 100% sure, but our film works with hidden emotions and also with unshot scenes. Olga Hepnarová, even after our film, is still an open case and topic.
Olga seems like a very complex character. After all your research, how would you describe her as a person?
I will answer how we worked with the character in film. 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's impossible to know everything. For us her crime will always have the subtext of something irrational. We definitely didn't want simply to tell the story of Olga Hepnarová. Most of the things in the film, we decided to put them there deliberately. The narrative structure as a whole, for example. She was alone.
Purposely driving into a crowd of people waiting for a tram on a Prague sidewalk is something unforgivable that Olga did, yet that’s not what the story is about. What is it that you mainly wanted to bring across in this film?
Yes, it is unforgivable. She is a murderer. But we are against dead penalty at all. No one has rights to spread the evil again and again. The world is as complex as our film is.
The Polish actress Michalina Olszańska is playing the role of Olga. How did you know that she would be the right person to do it?
Michalina joined the project a relatively short time before we started filming, but we trusted her since we saw her for the first time. We had been looking for her for a long time. 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 came easily. Michalina simply immersed herself in Olga and became her. Her powers of concentration were incredible, she didn't talk to anyone, during breaks she prepared for the next shot, after shooting she left for the hotel, where she was alone, like Olga. For us this was important primarily because we could focus our attention on supporting characters who don't have as much space in the movie, and therefore had a more difficult time of it. We enjoyed working with Michalina. It's a real advantage for us when you don't have to explain every little thing to an actress. 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 the emotions. They can then break out to the extreme.
Why did you choose to leave the movie in black and white?
From the beginning we felt that we wanted this film to be shot in black and white. The idea was for grey tones, low contrast, simple compositions, without unnecessary camera movement. That was simply our emotions, there was nothing more behind it.
As a lesbian in Czechoslovakia around 1970 it was hard for Olga Hepnarová to be acknowledged or approved. What role do gender and sexuality have in the film?
On one hand it's true that for us Olga's 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, Hepnarová was dealing with a range of other problems as well. She was inclined to solitude, but couldn't handle being completely alone. Our film is a great extent about lack of understanding; indeed, we ourselves called it an existential drama. What's more, Olga ended up in a state that led to an inability to accept even the slightest help. Anyway beinf a lesbian in Czechoslovakia during the seventies wasn’t easy but it was also real.