'I, Olga Hepnarova': Berlin Review

I, Olga Hepnarova still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Murder, she wrought.

This Berlinale world premiere dramatizes the real story of a mentally fragile young woman who became a cold-blooded killer.

A true story of mental illness and mass murder in 1970s Czechoslovakia, the opening film in the Berlinale Panorama section this year is a vintage blast of central European glumcore. Clothed in luminous jazz-cool monochrome by first-time feature directors Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb, I, Olga Hepnarova is an artfully austere character study pitched at the audience who made Pawel Pawlikowski's similarly retro-chic Polish drama Ida into an Oscar-winning cult hit. But this relentlessly somber Czech Republic-Poland-Slovakia-France co-production is a lesser work in both style and substance. Although the gay-themed plot elements will ensure niche interest and further festival play, commercial buzz will likely be lukewarm.

Born in 1951, Olga Hepnarova led a short and troubled life which ended in a notorious murder case. Played by rising Polish star Michalina Olszanska, mostly in a bobbed hairstyle that makes her an uncanny dead ringer for a young Natalie Portman, Olga is first introduced as a tormented teenager. A failed overdose attempt leads to a spell in a psychiatric hospital, where she is brutalized by her fellow patients. A chain-smoking, perma-scowling, sexually repressed lesbian loner, Olga eventually leaves the family she despises for a series of manual jobs, initially living a semi-feral existence in a remote wooden cabin.

But even liberated from her family, Olga's trials are far from over. The film recreates a number of her fleeting affairs with women, illustrated with a couple of explicit sex scenes, but all end unhappily. Sinking into a zombie-like state of alienation, she begins to harbor dreams of cold-blooded vengeance against an uncaring world. "One day you'll pay for your laughter and my tears," she vows in voiceover, lines drawn heavily from the real Olga's private letters.

In July 1973, Hepnarova finally snapped, deliberately driving a truck into a crowd of pedestrians waiting at a Prague tram stop. Eight people died and another dozen were injured. In an advance letter posted to newspapers before the attack, she wrote: "I, Olga Hepnarova, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to the death penalty." Kazda and Weinreb recreate this motorized massacre with almost banal understatement, shooting it mostly in a single take from Olga's viewpoint. It is a tasteful decision but, like most of their film, oddly low on dramatic impact.

Olszanska gives an impressively intense performance, if a little too mannered at first, but neither she nor the filmmakers ever get beneath the character's skin. Was she really motivated by revenge for a lifetime of bullying, as she claimed, or was she suffering from schizophrenic delusions, as the script teasingly hints? Kazda and Weinreb play the story far too safe, committing to nothing but the bald facts where a little more speculation and fabrication might have helped shape this disjointed biopic into something more satisfyingly cinematic. They also miss an obvious contemporary angle by making Hepnarova's sexuality marginal to the story instead of recasting her as a problematic martyr for LGBT rights.

Composed mostly of static interior shots and stripped almost bare of music, I, Olga Hepnarova has a cool Eastern Bloc elegance that Adam Sikora's crisp cinematography smartly treats as an asset rather than a liability. Olszanska's magnetic, angular beauty is another handy focal point in a modestly gripping debut which never quite musters the dramatic gravitas that such an emotionally charged true story should.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Black Balance, Media Brigade, Love Frame, Alef Film & Media Group
Cast: Michalina Olszanska, Martin Pechlat, Klara Meliskova, Marika Soposka, Juraj Nvota
Directors-screenwriters: Petr Kazda, Tomas Weinreb
Producers: Vojtech Fric, Sylwester Banaszkiewicz, Marcin Kurek, Marian Urban, Tomas Weinreb
Cinematographer: Adam Sikora
Editor: Vojtech Fric
Art director: Alexandr Kozak
Sales: Arizona Films

Not rated, 106 minutes