A true story in black and white, I, Olga is based on the life of a disturbed young woman who committed a massacre on the streets of Czechoslovakia in 1973. Just 22 at the time, she deliberately killed eight people by running them over with a truck.
The film opens with a 13-year-old Olga attempting to commit suicide – an incident that sets a sombre tone for the rest of the biopic. “To commit suicide you need a strong will, something you certainly don’t have,” her mother warns her, before packing her off to a psychiatric hospital, which seems to do more harm than good.
As the story progresses towards Olga’s terrible crime, we’re confronted with the moral dilemma of whether we should feel sorry for our protagonist – Olga is bullied, fails to make a true connection with anyone, and becomes more and more withdrawn from society. Watching it, you think: Is this woman a victim of circumstance, or is hers a crime without vindication?
It’s a delicate question, and one that filmmakers Tomás Weinreb and Petr Kazda intentionally set out to ask of their audiences. To find out more about Olga’s story, we called up Tomás and asked him what it was like getting into the mind of such an unusual murderer.
Hi Tomás. First up, how did you hear about Olga’s story?
The first time I heard about it was through a documentary on Czech television. Then we found a book about the facts and decided to write the script from it. We were fascinated, but not in a good way.
Can you tell us more about who she was and what she did?
She was a young girl who had a big problem with the world. I think that problem was connected to something deep inside her – that she wasn’t able to love someone. Our film is the feeling of “nobody likes me” and how, for someone who feels this way, it becomes impossible to love others. Olga was in a never-ending cycle where she tried to be alone and it was not possible for her, so she tried to find love – she met a girl, they made love physically, but it didn’t work out emotionally – and so she became alone again, and the cycle continued.
There are so many evils in the world and Olga felt these very personally. All of the problems of the world, she felt she was punished for. Some people tried to help her but it was too late I think... In 1973, she committed a crime where she took a lorry and drove it into a crowd of people and killed eight of them, and then was sentenced to be executed. The authorities had decided she was not mentally ill – but that’s the big question.
When this happened in Czechoslovakia it was a huge news story – but do people know much about it today?
A lot of people here know about "the girl with the lorry" – but not much more. People don’t know the details of her life, only the ending. They don’t know the name; they just know it happened.
Was it particularly shocking because she was a woman?
Yes. Especially as she was young and pretty. All the time we are connecting murderers with ugly men, to generalise. Some of our critics have the problem that Olga is too pretty in the film. But we like that it’s not the cliché that a bullied teenage girl has a problem with society because of the way she looks – Olga was beautiful, but the problem was what was inside.
She was the last woman ever to be hanged in Czechoslovakia. Why was that?
Because not many women commit mass murder! And the death penalty here was cancelled after the revolution in ‘89, at the beginning of the '90s. The problem with our judgement system then was that there were only two possibilities for these crimes: 15 years in jail or the death penalty. If she was sentenced to prison, I don’t think 15 years would have seemed enough punishment for some parts of society. But to other parts of society it was shocking that a girl so young was executed.
When Olga eventually decides to commit her crime in the film she reads aloud a letter that was actually sent to newspapers back in 1973:
"I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A woman destroyed by people... I have a choice – to kill myself or to kill others. I choose TO PAY BACK MY HATERS. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide victim. Society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death."
How much of what she says and does in the film is real and how much is scripted?
We met many people who were involved with her personally and we went through all the documents. We tried to make the film about the real situation but we chose the scenes ourselves. What we didn’t want to do was just script scenes that would be better for everyone’s understanding. We thought our film should sit on the edge... not on side with Olga, but not not on side. Our point of view was just connected with the idea that existential drama was the rationale to explain the act. We show the problems in the family, the problems with gender and sexuality, and with bullying... but I don't think we make a judgement. That was deliberate.
What about stylistic choices – why black and white?
The feeling from the beginning was that we wanted it grey, with shadow. During the development it wasn’t easy to get money for a black and white film but we insisted!
Olga is a lesbian and there are some explicit sex scenes – did you feel at any time uncomfortable representing this as male filmmakers?
It was natural for us to make it in this way. We were building on fact. So there was no problem. We had more problems with how to represent the other aspects of her life!
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I would like to say it’s not about us now, we did the best we could and it’s up to the audience. Hopefully you have a connection to this character and you follow her – sometimes from a distance, sometimes close – then she murders eight people and then she is executed. What to make of that? Mass murderers are called monsters but what does that mean? It means something un-human. But they are still human.