Szamanka Review

The Film

Returning to his native Poland, Andrzej Zulawski asked fellow émigrée Manuela Gretkowska to write a screenplay for him to film in the now post communist 1990s. For Zulawski, the opportunity was to create a work that didn't need to hide in genre or allegory in order to avoid censorship. In his own words, Szamanka was to be a film "without masks".

Given the use of a writer other than himself and another country, it is surprising how much Szamanka shares with Zulawski's earlier work La Femme Publique. A shocking and bare performance by a female lead, a sense of inevitable momentum to an eventual cataclysm and an almost mystical sense of narrative. The sexual politics survive too as the physical balance swings back and forth during the latter piece as well.imageFor all the similarities, Szamanka is much more mystical and fantastic than his French based works. There seems to be deliberate and playful use of themes in the story as the young Shamaness of the title, an engineering student, comes into a romantic battle with her anthropologist landlord. Visually images of pounding and squirting machines compete with crosses, Shamanic corpses and an almost psychoanalytical obsession with trains and the underground.

The film even manages a narrative circle which begins and ends the action with the same meal(I won't spoil what it is). The love scenes are heightened, explicit and with a piston like score that presents the plentiful intercourse as a process that is both mystical and mechanical. Humanity, industrialism and witchcraft provide the choice morsels that the director serves up with a strong dose of parody.imageThis almost hedonistic treatment was received as anti-Catholic in Zulawski's homeland with lines like "When one doesn't know anymore, one becomes a priest" and images of the two lovers in congress imitating the cross. There is a similar disregard for the world of anthropology, psychiatry and engineering, with tripping scientists, ignorant doctors and disfiguring factories.

It rather seems that wherever a science or belief exists, the director exposes its lack of validity or its human weakness. This approach even extends to the central relationships where the Shamaness incites sexual attraction and devotion and men fall apart all around her. Whether her approach to life, a consuming and instinctual one, is the only one that makes sense given the competing beliefs and sciences depends on whether you see her as hero or villain, or much more likely a satirical catalyst for the director. imageAs ever though, the feast of ideas is rather filling and the exhilaration expressed through the physical acting and the energetic camera leaves the viewer spent. Szamanka is playful but also slightly distressed with the world that the director rediscovers in his homeland. This passionate satire offers little in the way of belief but much for the heart and soul to consume. It is wholly wrong to criticise the work for this lack of prescription or charity because as the director has made clear this is an honest depiction of what he sees.

Seeing the world through Zulawski's eyes, without the usual mediation of censorship, allegory or clear metaphor, is a very challenging experience. It is also a very enriching one for someone who enjoys the visceral drive of a supremely individual artist. Like the best of his works, and it is one, Szamanka can not be ignored or forgotten and the viewer can only leave it for a short time before it returns to confront them again with remembered images and unsettled feelings.

Technical Specs

As is made clear on the disc, Mondo Vision refused a couple of prints of the film before settling on the master used here. Restored for dirt, debris and noise, the result is an improvement over previous DVD releases for which my praise is only qualified by the comparison with previous stellar Mondo releases. Some elements of the transfer, the titles in particular, are lower in quality with less confident colour and weaker black levels, but the general appearance is very impressive. Overall detail is marvellous, edges are perfectly judged, and flesh tones are appropriate.imageThe results with the original mono track are even better, with little in the way of mastering imperfections or source noise. A French dub is included at a lower bit-rate and two choices of excellent English subtitles are offered in larger yellow and smaller white fonts. The English translation was done by Daniel Bird with the director.


I was sent the limited edition for review which is presented in a beautiful gate-fold box covered in cream felt with embossed black cover art. The enclosure within boasts a wallet which contains the six lobby cards held in a neat brown envelope, along with the booklet which arrives wrapped in tissue paper. On the other leaf of the gate-fold is a digipak housing the DVD and the soundtrack CD.

This release does not include the director discussing the film in the commentary and instead has Daniel Bird talking with David McKenzie about the film in the commentary. Bird chats about how he got into film criticism via Eyeball magazine and set about trying to interview the director in Paris at the time of Szamanka's release. McKenzie asks Bird to explain key scenes and this works reasonably well, although the absence of the director does mean this is less enjoyable than the similar extras on the other Zulawski discs.imageThe other extras on the disc include an interview with the director in typically blunt form. He describes his male lead as a fine actor "when sober" and is very open about the controversy around his treatment of his main actress, who seems to have undergone a breakdown after shooting and made allegations about his cruelty. Zulawski also decries those who come to his films through the genre delight of "Possession" and explains the concept of "Naked Soul" along with his dealings with the writer.

Manuela Gretkowska herself is interviewed in a café and seems a little non-committal about the film. Her inspiration was about male exploitation and it is clear that Zulawski took her ideas in another direction.

The restoration featurette outlines David McKenzie's fine work on the transfer and there are three image galleries offered for the lobby cards, film stills and pictures of the director on set.

The lobby cards are classily done and the booklet is very professionally put together with details of cast and the DVD production in addition to the essays. Lucas' contribution is a clever appreciation of the film itself and written as well as all of his work. There is a translated interview conducted by Jean Marc Bouineau in a gimmicky A-Z format from 1997 and another from 1998 with Bird and Stephen Thrower from Eyeball magazine. The best piece is Bird's new appreciation of the film which explains the concept of "Naked Soul" and discusses the notion of the director as Shaman.

The rather excellent soundtrack from Andrzej Korzynski is the final inclusion in this terrific set.


Passionate and disturbing, Zulawski's return to his homeland is given a dream release. Another labour of love from Mondo Vision

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