The situation is very familiar, two completely opposite souls find each other one day and begin a turbulent relationship based on raw, sweaty, animalistic sex. They don’t try to understand each other or learn about each other’s names for that matter, no, the sole point of their relationship is to enjoy the feeling they experience when hitting the sack. This kind of extremely horny, but brutal relationship, is doomed to fail and this film turned out to be the blueprint for their mission of destruction. The director ANDRZEJ ZULAWSKI left his homeland Poland in the ‘70s because the Communist regime didn’t allow him to produce the films he wanted to do.
‘I wanted to make something about it, I couldn’t obviously, it would be anti-regime, and the regime was funding cinema and giving the money, so it was contradictory.’ (Zulawski, 2010)
Three decades later he returned to his beloved Poland, only to find it was ruled by another regime, but now the tables turned and he got to make the film he wanted to do and that is SZAMANKA.
‘A Shaman is a person regarded as having access to and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual and practices divination and healing. And Shamanism is a technique of religious ecstasy.’ (Slife.org, 2010)
The screenplay was written by the founder of the Polish Woman’s Party Manuela Gretkowska and she explained to Zulawski where the idea came from:
‘I have a friend and she’s madly in love with the young guy, but they are so different as on the university. The guy left her and she said to me ‘the only thing I want to do is to eat his brain with a little spoon like you eat dessert.’ (Zulawski, 2010)
Of course, Zulawski put his magic touch on the story and its realization, but the raw and kinky stuff is all Manuela. One of the characters inside the film explains her very thoughts of that time,
When watching the film, it seems that might be the whole agenda it tries to convey, but it is not brainless porn, it has a lot of thought put into it with brilliant performances by the lead characters and they went to humiliating lengths to bring Zulawski’s vision to life. Catastrophically received by the critics and harshly judged upon its release, it crashed at the box office. It was too hard for the audience to grasp what it all meant. Zulawski had encountered this problem many times throughout his career. He shared some insight when he stated that
‘in order to say something which is important morally and politically to me, [it had to go] under the mask of an almost horror film and for some not very bright viewers it stays a horror film. They never got under the mask. They stayed on this superficial level which is a pity.’ (Zulawski, 2010)
The narrative of the film has no ups and downs, it just constantly goes up. As energetic as it can be. But in the end, there is no explosive climax, nor do the characters change in some unforeseen way. When the spectator is confronted with that kind of film, it only means that Zulawski desired to explore other elements of the story which he deemed more interesting to bring to some kind of a conclusion. He shifted the focus away from the protagonists, which are still very important, but there is something else on Zulawski’s mind. DANIEL BIRD pointed out, that
‘a director finds the style to support the story.’ (Donato, 2014)
Since this style is energetic, a frantic fever dream, it is obvious Zulawski’s visual language was portraying something more paramount than the characters in this film, he said
‘if it’s raw, the story becomes immediately raw and it fits, for me!’ (Donato, 2014)
It is not often that audiences come across this level of the auteur in the cinema, where every little thing inside the film sprung out of the mind of the director, so one needs to bare in mind that
‘Zulawski’s films don’t tell stories; they conjure up emotions.’ (Stiglegger, 2000) and ‘[These emotions] are not internalized, but on the contrary, are universally externalized – in the truest sense of the word. States of mind, feelings, conflicts are not suggested, but almost tangibly visualized. The inner is brought outwards, and the visible is made the symbol of the soul.’ (De Viragh, 1981)
THE ITALIAN’S CHARACTER
Wloszka/The Italian(IWONA PETRY in her one and only acting role) is a very energetic woman and her behavior is the first thing that audiences notice because it is so out of place and there seems to be no explanation inside the film as to why she behaves like that. She is the polish femme fatale. That is
‘a stock character of a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She also may be (or imply that she is a victim), caught in a situation which she cannot escape.’ (Cope, 2014)
She is making irrational decisions and doing whatever she wants in the spur of the moment which makes her look like a slow-minded person. She grew up very poor in a forgotten village near Warsaw. Her mother wants her to become a prostitute so she can earn money just like her sister and her father is an alcoholic who is abusing her mother. The Italian gets a job here and there and she tries to get educated in Mechanics at the school of Engineering, but she loses her integrity on account of not following the simplest behavioral rules in society. She doesn’t care about much and has no ambitions in life. Most of the time she throws fits out of the blue, devours her food with her fingers or forgets to eat. So, more often than not, she jumps over a can of cat food in order to eat anything at all. When she meets Michal, he changes her perspective on life, and she doesn’t want to let him go. Although she has multiple sexual encounters with multiple partners throughout the film, Michal is the one who gets her juices flowing.
Michal (BOGUSLAW LINDA) is an anthropology professor and he managed to dig up a 2,500-year-old Shaman’s corpse which will occupy his thoughts constantly. Fascinated by the Shaman’s culture and wisdom he might have had, he aspires to become like him, but he isn’t bright enough to achieve that. He is
‘compelled by fucking as a means to discover the spiritual, and she’s a kind of female Shaman figure herself, drawn to sensation.’ (Kipp, 2011)
There are two mysteries Michal has to solve:
- how the Shaman died; it’s not of natural causes because half of his head is missing, and
- the mystery of the Italian, since he is an anthropologist and he studies people. Who is she and why is she behaving like that?
During that process, he develops an obsession with her that sends him right into the mouth of madness. Although he is aggressive and rough towards the Italian and doesn’t care about her feelings, even humiliates her in public and brings her to the brink of insanity, it is clear he isn’t the one in control, she is. She is controlling him throughout the entire film. She only plays the victim and he falls for it. His desperate words explain how he feels,
‘she only has to touch me, smear me with her sperm, and I see things differently, I hear… So, what’s your secret? Because if you were to tear me open, you’ll find nothing. Nothing but her.’ (Gretkowska, 1996)
It is because of her, that he lost his fiancée and has a problem with his father-in-law, which resulted in him taking a bunch of hallucinogenic mushrooms and moving in with the Italian. In the end, he lost his job, his career and his life, all because of her.
THE RAPE SCENE
Completely shocked, most audiences don’t understand why the screenplay called for the raping of the Italian. It makes no sense why Michal, all of a sudden, would tear down her clothes, jump on the bed and rape her. But, if examined closely, it becomes apparent that Michal didn’t rape her.
When she told him her nickname, the Italian, she came closer to him. So close, in fact, they seemed like they had already known each other for quite some time. She invited him into her personal space. He tried to touch her but injured his thumb. He began to bleed and concluded that she is like a
That propelled him not to give up, but to get even closer. He removes the make-up from her face like a father would do to his child. That moment represents the clue for the audience that she is willing to do whatever he asks her to do. So, he begins to remove her clothes. She didn’t have any panties on, because she was expecting to have a sexual encounter. Michal takes her, aggressively, but then all of a sudden, he stops. He stopped to see if she would protest or if he should continue. She didn’t protest, so he continued. The symbolic tear that rolled down her cheek was not because she is unwilling to have sex with him, but because he delivered on a level others haven’t been able to do so before. When he finished, she began to smile, because she liked it. It is new for her to finally like the sexual encounter. Why finally? Because Martin (who is something like a boyfriend of hers) clearly stated in the middle of their sexual encounter, that
‘It’s never good for you.’ (Gretkowska, 1996)
The Italian got infatuated with Michal’s god given sex talents and when she tried to have sex with her co-worker who is in love with her, it ended in a disappointment.
THE RELIGIOUS METAPHOR
When Zulawski returned to Poland to make his new film, there was no direct regime that could stop him from making the film he desires to make, but he still came to the conclusion that
‘after so many years of being on this planet, to do something interesting in so-called Art, you have to have an enemy. The more powerful the enemy the better, so you must hide what you really think.’ (Totaro, 2013)
Zulawski’s chosen enemy was the catholic church.
‘Szamanka was made 16 years ago. At that time the church, the clergy, the rest of the communist system, the petit bourgeoisie were trying to grab the riches and make some money. They were really ruling the country, and this is a film which is against every aspect of their thinking, or rather non-thinking.’ (The Ferroni Brigade, 2012)
The ‘non-thinking’ part is referring to the Italian. In the movie she behaves like a child, she doesn’t think about things, she just does them. The movie is an indirect attack on the church that took over Poland. Since the Headquarters of Catholicism are placed in Rome (Italy), Zulawski strengthen the connection to the metaphor by naming the lead character the Italian. Szamanka is the spiritual one, the transcended creature and the controlling femme fatale. Michal represents the common polish folk not influenced by religion. He is a scientist at heart and he is burdened by many existential questions that need answers. The connective tissue about religion:
- The first POSTER shows a female in a black shadow because it represents the mystery surrounding the woman. The Italian represents the unsolvable mystery for Michal and he is constantly searching for answers, but the real mystery, which occupies his thoughts 24/7, is the death of the Shaman. The poster is as much about the Italian as is about the unknown female Shaman who allegedly killed the 2,500-year-old Shaman in his time. The second poster has religious symbols visibly presented, so the moviegoer sees right away what to expect from the movie. In the picture, we see the naked Michal and the naked Italian and they are holding hands in such a way so their bodies form a cross, a Christian cross. Around that picture is a white frame that forms the shape of the cross from the Red Cross organization, a medical cross. The message on the poster tries to convey the meaning that ‘the characters will heal if they believe’. In the movie, the outcome is completely different as expected from the poster and it becomes clear it is a kind of a movie that is against believing in Catholic thought.
- Furthermore, the name of the movie is SZAMANKA, She-shaman or female Shaman if you will, but in the first scene of the film, there is a visible ‘ch’ written over the ‘sz’ in the word Szamanka. The name CHAMANKA doesn’t mean anything, it is a nonsense word, but if you take the word apart into ‘cha’ and ‘manka’ it has a lot more meaning.
CHA – To show annoyance or frustration at a specified event or person
MANKA – Manka is Hebrew and a derivative of the English Mary
(When Michal uncovered the corpse of the Shaman, he called him Beelzebub, the ‘Lord of the flies’ in Hebrew, who attracts flies and death, just as the Italian’s name and she attracts death as well). By connecting both explanations the meaning represents ‘a frustrated Mary’. That explains the character of the Italian very well, because when she walks from one place to the other, she has this constantly annoyed look on her face, or even when she speaks to other people, she grimaces with her face like she is about to explode with anger. She is frustrated because she feels she is not in the right place or in the right state of mind. The name Mary is twofold.
- The Italian walks by a CRYING SCULPTURE of the head of the Virgin Mary and stays mesmerized for a second. Guilty about robbing her family of the little money they have she still has respect for the mother of God, but it’s also apparent that she feels a connection to her in some way. This connection can be traced back to the actual name of the Italian. The Italian’s real name is Mary, this is the reason why the name of the film is twisted, the ‘ch’, and why the Italian feels connected to the sculpture because that is the director giving a clear clue to the audience to get his reference.
- She works in the industrial zone, where she is surrounded by liquid metal. Symbolically, she is already in HELL. Her existence is constant suffering throughout the days and the only release button she has is the animalistic sex drive set free by Michal.
- In the Italian’s classroom at the university, the blackboards are full of sketches that show the SCHEMATICS of a machine. The drawing behind the professor, during his monumental sexualized ‘machine-talk’, looks like an outline of the crucifixion of Jesus. That explains the first level, but since everything in this movie is connected to sex, the schematics also look like the insides of a vagina. The female reproductive organ looks a lot like the shape of a crucified son of God.
- Inside the mental hospital, where Michal’s father-in-law is working, is a LITTLE CHURCH for the patients and the doctors. Since Michal is a non-believer, he behaves like an idiot inside that mini chapel. When his father-in-law pushes Michal towards the wall, the frame gets a glimpse of a slogan ‘God shall reward you’ that is written above the mailbox. The ultimate irony lies in the fact that God didn’t reward the non-believing Michal, but punished him.
- When a co-worker of the Italian had an accident in the industrial zone, his colleague was so scared, he began to PRAY. He turned to a picture of a dark-skinned saint with her baby that is displayed on the wall. Somehow, the Italian got caught up in the middle, between the picture and the praying colleague, and the whole scene looks like he is praying to the Italian and not to the picture.
- Michal has a theory why the Shaman’s head is split open, it was
‘was trepanned so his soul could spread its wings. Shaman? A super-shaman! A Pope!’ (Gretkowska, 1996)
In the context of the movie, the characters refer only to one religion, namely CATHOLICISM. Although Michal prefers the Shaman’s religion, he doesn’t know how to practice shamanism. So, both, the Italian and Michal, mostly use Christian values and that’s why both can’t understand homosexual behavior. Michal couldn’t understand why his brother was drawn to homosexuality when he turned into a priest and the Italian is giving her opinion about it in this conversation:
MICHAL: ‘The one we dug up, the shaman or whatever it was, also had sperm up his ass.
THE ITALIAN: ‘Faggot!’
MICHAL: ‘No, it was female sperm. Women inseminating the devil.
THE ITALIAN: ‘There is no devil!’ (Gretkowska, 1996)
Michal was very fond of his brother, explaining to the Italian how he helped everyone and that people had respect for him. He not only sacrificed his studies so he can help Michal, but he even pulled Michal out of a vile gang. Michal adored him up until the point when his brother joined Priesthood, because there, he turned into a homosexual, and Michal was devastated. His ‘idol’ became a homosexual priest. Michal’s feelings got hurt, and to forget about his weakness he turned into a rough guy, who spends most of his energy hiding his insecurity.
- Michal experienced a nasty evening and when he returned home, he found many naked pictures of the Italian displayed in the form of a CROSS on the glass wall in the place where his working table should be. He forgot that he made this for himself during his mushroom trip. He made it to manipulate himself so he would surrender completely to the Italian. Afterwards, they have a mind-blowing sex experience holding their hands together to imitate the shape of the cross on the wall behind them. Ironically, Michal became his worst nightmare; he decided to become a priest, just like his brother, and leave the Italian, which ended fatally.
- Michal didn’t find any answers to the questions that kept him up at night. Eventually, he joined the priesthood, because
‘I don’t know. When you don’t know, you become a priest.’ (Gretkowska, 1996)
Angry and disappointed, the Italian murdered Michal by striking him with a meat can over the head, which cracked open his skull with the brain fairly visible inside. She, of course, took a spoon and gobbled down the juicy bits and enjoyed them for a while. This scene was foreshadowed at the beginning of the film when the Italian ordered a plate of animal brains, which she also ate with a spoon, but instantly rejected it and turned to the ice cream she ordered as well. The shaman’s corpse also came with his brain removed. All these details came together during the killing scene, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen the way it was portrayed. This moment in the film entails the greatest evidence that the Italian possesses some kind of SHAMANIC POWERS because this scene happens on a spiritual level.
- After she committed the murder, she is bathing in blood from head to toe. During this bloodbath, she breaks the 4th wall as a clue to the audience that this scene has a different level of thinking, a.k.a. the SPIRITUAL WORLD. Now, connected to the spiritual world, the audience gets to see what happens inside that level of existence.
- In the next scene, she’s clean, she changed her clothes and went outside the apartment, but inside the frame, Michal’s corpse is still visible on the bed. She used white covers to hide his mangled corpse, which soaked up the blood really fast. When paying attention to the BLOODSTAIN, one notices that the stain is placed on his lower backside and not on his head, where it should be, since she scooped up his delicious brain. This is because she didn’t kill him in the way the earlier scene suggested; no, he was killed in a completely different way. The blood from the head couldn’t accidentally run down his back because he was lying on his stomach and there is also no visible bloodstain on his head. Since there was no visible transition in the way of the editing or framing which could have suggested the new realm is taking over the film, it suggests, there was no transition for her as well because she acted instinctively and that transported her right into the spiritual world.
Szamanka is a film about a boy and a girl and something otherworldly that connects them just like it’s demonstrated in this graffiti.
Although this movie isn’t on the same level of intensity as POSSESSION (1981.), it still holds its own. There is only a handful of people who can identify with the extreme desire for animalistic sex. That being said, Szamanka is a marvelous achievement and it should be studied for ages to come. This film is plastered with layers that need to be deciphered and it is the mystery of the Italian that grabs the audience’s attention. Zulawski finished Szamanka in the year 1996, and sixteen years later he got the chance to see it again on the big screen, remastered, and the only thing he said was:
There is more on Szamanka, head over to:
Cope, Rebecca, ‘Best Film Femme Fatales’, Harper’s Bazaar magazine, 2014
De Viragh, Tibor, ‘Possession (Die Besessene)’, Zeitschrift Zoom, 1981
Gretkowska, Manuela, Szamanka screenplay, 1996
Kipp, Jeremiah, ‘No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka, slantmagazine.com, No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka – Slant Magazine, 2011
Stiglegger, Marcus, ‘Die Sprache der Verzweiflung – Das Kino des Andrzej Zulawski’, Splitter im Gewebe – Filmemacher zwichen autorenfilm und Mainstreamkino, Theo Bender Verlag, 2000
The Ferroni Brigade, ‘Beginnings are useless: A Conversation with Andrzej Zulawski, mubi.com, Beginnings Are Useless: A Conversation with Andrzej Żuławski on Notebook | MUBI, 2012
Totaro, Donato, ‘An interview with Andrzej Zulawski and Daniel Bird Fantasia 2013, Offscreen.com, An Interview with Andrzej Zulawski and Daniel Bird – Offscreen, 2014
Zulawski, Andrzej, ‘A film without masks’, Szamanka DVD bonus feature, Mondo Vision, 2010