A new film puts Olga Hepnarová – the last woman to be executed in former Czechoslovakia – back under the microscope and looks at the traumatic life that led to revenge
In July of 1973, a deeply troubled 22-year-old woman named Olga Hepnarová rented a lorry and drove it into a crowd of elderly pedestrians standing at a tram stop on a busy street in Prague. Three of her victims were killed immediately, while five others died shortly afterwards and many more suffered grave injuries. The attack was meticulously planned, as evidenced by two almost identical letters sent by Hepnarová to national newspapers, which, owing to the slow pace of the postal service, didn’t arrive until two days after she had carried it out.
In the letters she detailed that the murder was an act of revenge on her family and society at large, both of whom she felt had made her life unbearable by their relentless bullying. She had considered other means of wreaking damage, including derailing a train and setting off an explosion, but she settled on a truck as she was, at the time, employed as a truck driver. Her ultimate goal was to commit a complicated, and highly publicised, suicide while punishing the world she so despised. “I am a loner. A destroyed man. A man destroyed by people,” one letter read. “I have a choice – to kill myself or to kill others. I choose – TO REVENGE MY HATERS. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide. The society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death penalty.” As was her wish, Hepnarová was hung in 1975, the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia.
Now, over 40 years after the event, a new film from Czech writer-director duo Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda titled I, Olga puts Hepnarová back under the microscope, with a harrowing rendition of her story, both before and after the murder. Stylishly captured in black and white, it is a slow-paced yet gripping watch; at times stirringly subjective – taking us right inside Hepnarová’s increasingly disturbed mind – at others coolly observant. Rising Polish star Michalina Olszańska scowls, hunches and chain smokes herself into character as Olga, and pulls it off with mesmerising skill, unearthing, in her own words, “the human being beneath the crime”.
We learn of Hepnarová’s early life: of her detached, middle-class father and mother, of her suicide attempt at age 13 and spell in a psychiatric hospital where she was badly bullied. We see her move into her family’s cabin, where she claims to want to be left alone, while becoming increasingly depressed and isolated. She is a lesbian and makes desperate attempts to find love, but is unable to connect with anyone and soon begins to spiral out of control. It is a powerful cautionary tale of what can happen when a person’s inner-turmoil and mental health struggles are largely ignored; a problem we are slowly but surely confronting in modern society – although we still have a long way to go.
Shedding light on such a taboo topic was a large part of the appeal for Weinreb and Kazda in their search for a cinematic subject. “In the Czech Republic, many people know something about the girl with the lorry, but they don’t know her name for example; they don’t know what happened to her,” Weinreb tells us. “It’s still a story that our society tries to hide in many ways: in the Czech Republic we are very good at talking about our day-to-day problems, but not about problems like Olga’s. It was very interesting to us because an act of aggression like that is very unusual in our country; it’s not the same as somewhere like Syria where acts of terrorism are sadly a lot more common. It was very difficult to get the film developed because everyone kept asking, ‘Why do you want to focus on such bad things?’”
The duo, however, were determined that in Hepnarová they had found their protagonist, and subsequently plunged themselves into the research process, consulting with Roman Cílek, author of “a very high-quality factual” book on Hepnarová’s case, as well as Czech “Hepnarologist” Čestmír Kozar, and poring over court transcripts to fill in the story’s blanks and craft a convincing screenplay. “Of course, we told it in our own way,” explains Weinreb, “but we didn’t write anything that we didn’t know to be true – if we didn’t know it for sure, we removed it from our script.” They also spoke with Hepnarová’s friends and family but found them, understandably, unforthcoming. “We spoke with her sister by phone, and she said, ‘do it how you want, to the best of your ability, but I don’t want to cooperate on the project,’” the director expands. “We tried to speak to her mother but she was 90 at the time and didn’t want to talk, and we also met her roommate, but it was really uncomfortable because she really didn’t want to discuss it either. For the people who knew Olga, there were a lot of emotions, and I imagine guilt.”
For actress Olszańska, however, a meeting with Hepnarová’s former boyfriend Miroslav David proved more fruitful. “It was an incredible experience to meet Miroslav,” she says, “I felt like the ghost of Olga was there. Tomáš and Petr asked him if I could play Olga, and he looked at me and said, ‘She has something in her eyes.’ I didn’t want to imitate Olga in the film, I wanted to create a symbolic character, but it was interesting to hear I could convincingly portray something of her.” So what did the rest of her research involve?
“She was trying to find love and she failed, and that was vital because love is everything” – Michalina Olszańska
“I really just looked at the photos I had of Olga – there were only, like, four – and I tried to catch her gaze; that was the most important thing for me. I was also looking to find a connection with her; I wanted to show that she wasn’t a psychopath: in my belief she was just hurt and alone, like an animal in a cage. When you read a story about a girl who’s kind of like you and then something happens to her and she becomes a monster, that touches you; you want to know what happened.” The most poignant thing that struck the actress, from studying Hepnarová’s letters and speeches, was the lack of affection and understanding that befell her. “She was trying to find love and she failed, and that was vital because love is everything; you can be so depressed but when there is someone to hold your hand, to give you warmth, you are saved. You just need one person – it doesn’t need to be a lover, just a friend who understands you – but Olga had no one.”
Weinreb concurs, “We knew that anyone who could commit a violent and terrible crime like this couldn’t be healthy, but we wanted to try to understand what might have pushed her to it, and to make people think what might have prevented it.” “I think the people who ignored the bullying are just as much to blame as the bullies themselves,” interjects Olszańska, “it’s a lesson as to what can happen if you don’t step in in time to help someone. There are still acts of terrorism being committed all the time – the attack in Nice, which was dreadfully similar to Olga’s crime, happened after we finished filming – so the topic is still very relevant.” Weinreb nods in agreement: “we are just pleased if the film can open up and add to the discussion in some way.”
I, Olga is in UK Cinemas and on MUBI from November 18.