Viewer’s Discretion: ‘I, Olga Hepnarova’ and ‘Phyllis and Harold’

“I, Olga Hepnarova” (Amazon, Netflix, Vudu)

Based on the life a Czechoslovakian murderer — who killed eight people and injured 12 by driving a truck into them in 1973 — this story is well-known in the country of the horror, but less so in America. As such, depending on the nationality, different viewers are going to get different things out of it.

As a study of a possibly schizophrenic outsider on the margins of society exploring her sexuality and slowly losing control of herself, this is an artful, structured work that reveals less about the title character than perhaps some familiar with the story would want.

Its real power comes with its depiction of daily life in a Communist country. Shot in black and white and evoking an old style of European art film from decades ago, co-directors Tom Weinreb and Petr Kazda depict the ennui provided by the state to its citizens. Uninspired and bleak, the Czechs under communism have little to inspire them and a problem like Hepnarova, played with a disturbing sincerity by the almost androgynous Michalina Olszanska, is shuffled around on the margins of the system.

It’s slow moving and neo-realist in its presentation, which might tax some viewers’ patience, but will reward those interested in a stark examination of the isolation that is bred the collectivism of crumbling states, as within the old Soviet Union.

“Phyllis and Harold” (Amazon, Apple)

I’m a sucker for the dysfunctional-family-with-a-secret genre of documentary film, and this 2010 effort by director Cindy Kleine is the definition of a hidden gem. Looking at the nearly 60-decades-long marriage of her parents, Kleine seeks to answer the question, “What are these people doing together?” and comes up with complicated conclusions.

When we first meet her parents, they seem like a typical, aging, cantankerous old couple of some means. Father Harold is a successful dentist in Long Island, pleased with his life and convinced that everything has turned out so golden that he wants for nothing.

Mother Phyllis, however, paints a different picture and almost from the start of the individual interviews, she makes an unexpected admission that dominates the alternate views of the history of their marriage that the two have. And far from just revealing a family secret, Phyllis’ past spills into her present, creating emotional complications that Kleine is unflinching in capturing.

There are aspects of this film that are clunky, maybe even amateurish. There are some truly horrible, though thankfully brief, animation sequences, and the video camera work offers nothing much memorable. But these are minor quibbles against the whole package, which does an astounding job at capturing the emotional complexities that can silently dominate lives over decades. It’s also a sharp portrait of the choices of women of a certain era, and, I think, an indicator of how far we’ve come as a society regarding those choices.

Many of us have lived in families that are their own versions of the story Kleine tells here, and she is adept at pulling you into her personal manifestation and letting it surround you for 90 minutes.

Originally published at

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