Czech That Film Tour 2017: I, Olga Hepnarova, by Dayne Linford
In July, 1973, Olga Hepnarová, then twenty-one years old, purposefully drove a truck into a crowd of pedestrians waiting for a tram. Eight were killed, and, two years later, Hepnarová was executed under the Communist government of Czechoslovakia for the crime. Though the Soviet state that she claimed to be enacting revenge upon has since passed, the bracing, random nature of her crime, and the method of its commission, ought to ring a bell to viewers remembering the slaughters in Nice in 2016 and Stockholm more recently. Her place as an isolated, queer outsider, might feel reminiscent of the Columbine shootings in Colorado in 1999. Indeed, the very fact of her mass killing stretches across the world and across our history, even, almost certainly, into the future.
Wisely, in rendering Hepnarová’s story, directors Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb avoid these obvious historical and political analogues, zeroing in on Olga herself, as the film states even in its title, taken from her manifesto written prior to the killing – I, Olga Hepnarová. It opens sometime before the massacre, with a failed attempt at suicide, then proceeds through her many other failed attempts – at love, at work, at finding a place, each its own successive suicide down the drain of all-consuming despair and hatred. Olga, in a masterful performance by Michalina Olszanska, is constantly ill at ease, under attack even in the way she’s framed by the camera and placed in the film’s editing, cut to as if relocated in abstracted space, without agency and in opposition to her surroundings, as if her existence is a form of violence, both upon her and, eventually, upon her victims.
Any film of this nature must be a kind of rumination on what makes a murderer. The film feints in a couple directions – is she so ill-suited because she’s a lesbian? She devotes herself wholly to an affair with another woman at work, Jitka (Marika Soposki), but the latter breaks it off as Olga becomes more possessive. She finds another woman soon enough, though. Perhaps it’s because she can’t find fulfilment in Communist society, in her work? Though her job is certainly lowly, she doesn’t seem too perturbed by it or particularly to care one way or the other. When she has a chance to speak to a psychiatrist about her crippling depression, she doesn’t say anything about the boredom of her job, but instead states plainly that she is a lesbian and wants a wife. The psychiatrist demurs but the point is clear – Olga doesn’t mind the prescriptive power of the state in this all-consuming conception, she minds that it won’t bend that power in her favor. Ultimately, though treated with profound depth, particularly in the moments when she is seized by her psychological struggles, the film takes one of its greatest strengths in not answering the unstated question, providing its strongest and most insightful material.
Olga herself, the real and the film person, offers answers to this question in the letters she wrote to newspapers around Prague the morning of her attack, undelivered until days later – a manifesto, an indictment, and a confession all in one. Always careful and forthright, she lays out her claim in tortured pseudo-legalistic jargon, perhaps trying to assert the validity of that claim, seizing the language of power as she attempts to turn it upon the powerful, as she sees them. She details the abuse she’s suffered, both socially and in her family, and explains why she must perform this single, horrific act – because “society will not condemn itself”, she declares, “My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your beastiality, sentence you to the death penalty.” Though we are not spared the horror of her actions, the world Olga inhabits is indeed ugly and full of profound violence, as are her experiences within it. Long before her decisive action, she echoes, evokes, rejects, and embodies it – as she writes, “by your justice, or by your injustice.”
The easy reading of this film is that the world that created Olga is a past world, a Communist state, rendered in black and white to provide a helpful, historical distance. But this kind of intellectual and artistic laziness is not encouraged here; the film spends enough time on her historical circumstances to situate Olga, but not to allow her, or us, to pass responsibility. In this case, society is rendered with a capital “S”, and the uncomfortable synergies between her small act of terror and the countless acts of violence taking place currently across the globe confirm that, like all art, this is a film about its own circumstances, not those of its subject. In this way, what is laid at the feet of society here is devastating – though Olga alone took those eight lives, filmed crumpling under the hood of her car like bodies before a tank, she simply perpetuated a Social violence, a mass dehumanization engaged in by humanity writ large.
Her trial begins, not with a reading of rights, an argument for the sanctity of the court, or even a customary opening ritual, but with a listing of damages, all monetary, carefully itemized, which segues seamlessly into a reading of the eight lives lost. The point, first asserted by the great Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn following his release from Siberian imprisonment under Stalin’s regime, is clear – in the Cold War, the great conflict of Solzhenitsyn and Hepnarová’s lives, both state systems equally reduced people to objects and statistics, and still do. Olga, now a fearsome statistic convicted to erasure but burdened with a years-long bureaucratic wait while the execution works its way through the system, argues repeatedly with her government psychiatrist for what she really should be considered, an idea much older than a terrorist or a Communist – a prügelknabe, the boy who received the whip when the prince misbehaved. In an age of political violence, by both the state and those seeking to destroy or demoralize it, this concept is deeply troubling, and incredibly pertinent. As everyone looks forward to the coming wave of elections with mixed hopes and fears, notions of unity and nationalism, it’s a question worth asking – who is our prügelknabe? Who stands as the object of fear and hatred, reactions misdirected from a deeper, more difficult, and more permanent source?