Michalina Olszanka portrays I, Olga Hepnarová’s title character across a span of 10 years, from Olga’s suicide attempt at the age of 13 until her execution in 1975, at 23 years old. Save a change of haircut, Olszanka’s physical appearance doesn’t change much over the course of this stark Czech biopic’s 104 minutes, but writer-directors Tomás Weinreb and Petr Kazda chart Olga’s maturation by moving their camera ever closer to their actress. At the outset, the filmmakers highlight Olszanka’s almost comically slouched posture, an obvious manifestation of Olga’s lack of agency; that sense of powerlessness gradually drives Olga toward a heinous act of mass murder, an outcome that comes to feel fated as Olga’s will becomes more obstinate and the camera gradually, inexorably inches nearer to her expressionless face.
Told in the lingua franca of many films that hail from Eastern Europe, with crisp black-and-white cinematography, shots of bleak landscapes, and a solemn sound mix, I, Olga Hepnarová explores Olga’s alienation from society and her evolving homosexuality in tandem. These themes are pointedly irreconcilable, and both seem to stem from traumatic experiences of abuse and bullying as a child. After she’s briefly admitted to a psychiatric hospital as a teenager, Olga leaves her childhood home to live in an isolated hut and drift by on a series of manual jobs. The filmmakers do little to illuminate the passage of time, reducing the dramaturgy to a set of clipped scenes documenting Olga’s fluid work status, her efforts to achieve consistent medical help, and her ephemeral sexual relationships.
Too much of Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb’s film passes by in a tone of brutalist understatement.
Some supporting characters come and go, but many of them seem interchangeable, victims of the film’s success in translating Olga’s alienation into an austere visual style and a narrative that’s rigorously fractured and often shorn of context. Weinreb and Kazda are faced with an obvious conundrum: How do you approach a study of a character that might deserve our understanding, if not much of our sympathy? Their solution is to chart a path that seems objective but necessarily incomplete. There are moments of passion and longing throughout Olga’s sentimental education, but her worldview is relentlessly grim and self-centered. At one point, she declares her social status as “worse than that of a black American,” further describing herself as “lynched” by a repressive government and an uncaring public.
I, Olga Hepnarová pairs its protagonist’s increasingly dire provocations with allusions to her presumed mental illness, eventually settling on a suggestion that she suffered from multiple personality disorder. It’s evident that Olga has suffered, but it’s equally clear that she refuses opportunities to engage in potential friendships. The filmmakers take few measures to engender sympathy for Olga, but their prismatic take on her life, while novel, precludes making any resonant statements about homosexuality, emotional health, or humankind’s capacity for evil. Too much of the film passes by in a tone of brutalist understatement; though the camera draws ever closer to Olga, it seems ever farther from securing a grasp on how she arrived at her calcified, vengeful philosophy. The final act of I, Olga Hepnarová offers some terribly compelling violence and a few moments of anguished moral debate, but these scenes are undernourished by the film’s ultimately vague brand of objectivity.