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NPR Arts & Life

'I, Olga' Charts One Woman's Path From Alienation To Brutal, Senseless Violence

A Grim Portrait of the Murderer as A Young Woman: Mother (Klára Melísková) and Olga (Michalina Olszanska) in <em>I, Olga.</em>
A Grim Portrait of the Murderer as A Young Woman: Mother (Klára Melísková) and Olga (Michalina Olszanska) in <em>I, Olga.</em>

Brutal in both subject matter and presentation, the art-house biopic I, Olgatells the story of the last woman to be given the death penalty in Czechoslovakia. Olga Hepnarova, a suicidal 22-year-old who drove her truck onto a Prague sidewalk and killed eight pedestrians in 1973, attributed her act of mass murder to her own sense of alienation from the world. To communicate this, it's understandable that directors Tomás Weinreb and Petr Kazda would choose to, well, alienate their audience. Cue the standbys of austere Eastern European cinema: the chilly black-and-white cinematography, the lack of a musical score, the Dostoyevskian themes of brutality begetting brutality.

Look, there's no denying the film, which premiered at the Berlinale more than a year ago, is a hard sit. It opens with scenes of implied familial abuse and closes with a bone-chilling execution; from Olga's mother telling her she lacks the "strong will" for suicide to Olga committing suicide by state. But this week's vehicular terrorism in London, combined with the similar attacks last year in Nice and Berlin, are a reminder that such methods of terror are not new and are not exclusive to any particular ideology. The film's position, rigorously distilled if not entirely original, is that these inhumane tactics are more reliably symptoms of a general sense of isolation from the world, and a desire to inflict pain and suffering on as many people as possible. Any other reason may not matter much beyond this grim, basic truth.

The title comes from a manifesto Olga sends to the newspaper to explain her murders, highlighting that she was in full command of her behavior and giving the state enough cause to execute her. We follow the paths Olga takes until she arrives at such a horrific destination, beginning with her troubled home life and suicide attempt at age 13, which precipitates a year in a psych ward where her fellow inmates also abuse her. Olga later moves out of her house and into a one-room hut with no electricity, casually explaining to one of her only confidantes that she gets her water "from the pump." Working at a mechanic shop, Olga sticks out with her lanky frame and paranoid gaze, and her middle-aged male colleagues eye her warily as she stacks tires.

There will always be something off-putting about films centered on mass murderers, since they represent our unending need to romanticize and explain away the needless deaths of other human beings. Polish actress Michalina Olszanska ( The Lure) helps assuage those fears with her frightening, but never less than deeply human, turn as Olga. Her glassy-eyed, understated rendition of a woman who's lost all touch with reality jars us from our senses, despite — or perhaps because of — the filmmakers' clear fascination with their protagonist's sex appeal.

Olga is gay, a detail that is never explicitly linked to her sense of isolation, although her few moments of genuine human connection come when she gets to be with other women (some simply use her and then toss her aside). But Olszanska plays the character as someone who doesn't so much project her queerness as operate through the world ignorant of typical feminine social cues — with a lumbering gait and slouched posture that occasionally slips into a low-femme flirtatiousness. Once she makes use of her intelligence to share her worldview she slips into full-on delusion, claiming her history as a victim of bullying has made her suffer worse than black Americans. Should Weinreb and Kazda have allowed her quite so much time to philosophize her way out of a sense of compassion?

Cinematographer Adam Sikora often strands Olga on her own within the frame, her black bob obscuring her face, but he also makes effective use of open spaces to show how she remains at odds with the outside world. His images of barren dinner tables and shuffling workers are the film's only real clues to the spectre of Communism and the impending Velvet Revolution. Fifteen years from the date of Olga's execution, the Czech Republic will outlaw the death penalty — her chosen instrument of her own demise. But since Olga lives in isolation and remains convinced everyone is out to harm her, she doesn't seem to care about societal change either way.

Because the actual deed doesn't unfold until the final act, we are left with kind of a patchwork of behavioral traits. The scene of the truck attack itself is a 30-second blip of detached horror: from the driver's seat, we glimpse lives ending as they disappear under the hood with sickening thuds. It's the only scene a film about Hepnarova was actually obligated to restage, yet it's also the scene that feels the slimiest, conjuring the ghosts of the people who never wanted this role to begin with.

What follows the attack, though, is fascinating. Olga's trial period, during which she asserts several times that she wants to be put to death so her actions will gain more attention, precedes her hanging, when something finally rights itself within her and we see a person only coming to grips with her fear of death in the moments before the inevitable occurs. She's like the motive-free young murderer who breaks down sobbing just before his execution in Krzysztof Kieślowski's A Short Film About Killing. No amount of terror campaigns, by Hepnarova or anyone mimicking her in the present day, will change an artist's need to process the fact that humans, and only humans, are responsible. In the eyes of filmmakers, at least, no one is so low as to be below remorse.

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