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Mr and Mrs Stodola

The real-life story of a Czech couple that went on a shocking, unrepentant killing spree becomes a tight and tense thriller - live at the First Feature Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM TALLINN

Petr Hátle’s third feature film is based on a couple who went on a killing spree across the Czech Republic in the early 2000s. They primarily targeted retired pensioners, and were eventually convicted of committing of 17 crimes. As of the time of writing, both Jaroslav and Dana Stodola are still serving life sentences; less surprisingly, their marriage ended in divorce shortly after their arrest. Dana was the mastermind behind the majority of the killings: Lucie Žáčková plays the part with an exaltedness that reminded me of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

And then there’s Jan Hájek, who plays the muscular husband. Hájek admitted that it took him a night of soul searching before he finally agreed to the role. His fears are there in some instances, not least in an early sequence where Jaroslav agrees to murder an elderly man on the grounds that he called her a “whore”. In almost blinding second, you can see Hájek’s eyes twitching to the beat of his apprehension.

Žáčková, by contrast, is mesmerising as Dana. She’s gleeful, masterful and unrepenting: everything a person with a penchant for violence would have. It also helps that Žáčková is naturally stylish, which makes some of her whimsical confessions seem apposite. The film implies that she met up with another man in the hope of stealing some of his personal fortune. When Dana meets Hájek, she insists it was a merely a business arrangement, but Žáčková is so subterranean that it’s difficult to ascertain whether she was lying to him, to the audience or to herself. Probably the last one, come to think of it.

Hátle’s background is in documentary filming. His urgent, rapid fire camera work and editing style actually adds to the tension. The grizzliest kills are saved for the end of the film, which is a curious decision from a narrative point of view. One strangulation had particularly strong emotional resonances. The director offered some background information about Jana. Born in Slovakia, she spent much of her early life suffering from psychological trauma due to rape and a failed pregnancy. He said that he thinks someone could make a film about her. Well, why didn’t Hátle? It would have made a much more engaging story, particularly since it concerned the stronger actor of the two. Tidbits: the film nonetheless manages to make an engaging tale of a true-life tragedy, and does in a manner that’s tight and full of tension.

A Czech man asked Hátle during the Q&A after the film premiere: could he send a copy to the real life couple? Hátle indulged the question, but his eyes demonstrated a fear to engage with the killers on an intimate level. Who could blame him?

Mr and Mrs Stodola just premiered at the First Feature Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.


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