“Já, Olga Hepnarová” Even desolation can shine

Michalina Olszanska
Michalina Olszanska | © Black Balance

This is a Berlinale packed with important issues, though for me there has only really been one question since the Panorama section opened with a Czech film: what is the significance of the black-and-white in “Já, Olga Hepnarová”?

In Já, Olga Hepnarová (I, Olga Hepnarová), the filmmakers Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb tell the story of a young woman who used a lorry to drive into and kill eight people in Prague on 10 July 1973, and was hanged for her crime – the last woman in Czechoslovakia to receive the death sentence.

Psychological study of a woman who ran amok

Olga is a desolate young woman who feels misunderstood and passed over, including in her lesbian desires. In court she will describe herself as a “scapegoat”, yet most of the aggression stems quite clearly from her. Olga hates people and loves antagonizing them. She is brilliantly portrayed by Michalina Olszanska, her eyes constantly lowered and smoking in just about every scene. This psychological study is supplemented by monologues taken from Hepnarová’s extensive records and letters. “I know I’m a nutter, but an enlightened one”, Olga says into the camera. “One day you will pay for my tears!” But also: “Nothing can help me.”

Black-and-white is not grey 

Olga cites many reasons for her act, yet the film’s strictly linear narrative denies her – and us – any causalities, with the exception of a very obvious personality disorder that scandalously plays no role whatsoever in court. Her psychologists are nice. Her family is simply helpless. No motive is given sufficient relevance to serve as an explanation. And this is where for me the black-and-white comes into play. Does it depict how “grey” life is in socialist Czechoslovakia? No, the black-and-white in Já, Olga Hepnarová is not grey, it shines just like in the most beautiful classic films of the French New Wave. If the drabness of life at the time had really been the point, the film would have had to be shot in colour. On the contrary, the choice of black-and-white, which is not merely nostalgic either, lends this tale – about the kind of unhappy person that there will always be in every era and in every society – its universal significance. Perhaps it is a question of serious professional bias, but for me it was definitely not the best but the most beautiful film of the festival.