‘This film, brilliantly done, can ONLY be understood by the Polish people.’ This comment was posted by a proud Pole in response to Leslie Felperin’s
Guardian review of Bogowie, published on 23 October 2014. I am not a Pole, and have no Polish, but I saw the film the week before in south-east Poland, in the company of the owner of a language school who offered me a simultaneous interpretation. (We sat as far away from other members of the small audience as we could).
Poles of my acquaintance have not been noisy champions of Polish cinema – but they are proud of Bogowie, they are proud of surgeon Zbigniew Religa whose pioneering work the film celebrates, and they are proud of Tomasz Kot, the actor who plays the part with such panache that another commentator wrote: ‘I was under the impression that it was Professor Religa himself.’
The first human-to-human heart transplant was carried out by Christiaan Barnard, at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Western Cape, South Africa, in December 1967. Yet the success rate of early operations was disappointing until immuno-suppressant drugs were made available in the mid-1970s, and particularly corticosteroids in 1983.
Like Barnard, Religa trained in the United States: this is where much of the research into tissue-rejection was being done. We meet him though in his role as Assistant Professor at the Institute of Cardiology in Warsaw, in the early years of Solidarity, under the martial law imposed by General Jaruzelski in 1981. This is what the Polish commentator meant when she said only Poles could understand the film: only Poles could remember what it was like to live and work in those times. They were politically turbulent times – and Religa himself entered the political fray later in life; but it is only as a heart surgeon that we meet him in this film, in the years 1984 and 1985.
He was convinced that the time had come to apply his training and the growing experience of organ transplantation in the West to the needs of patients in Poland. The first experiment in xenotransplantation of a baboon heart into a 12-year-old girl was carried out in California in 1984. Reference is made in the film to Religa’s own experiments using pigs’ hearts – but we are not treated to a back-story here. Instead, we are pitched into Religa’s fierce-eyed, hunchbacked, chain-smoking determination to defy professional and religious prejudice. We accompany him as he storms along dimly-lit hospital corridors, his long hair and white coat flowing behind him. We take on trust his competence to do what he is convinced he can do (‘Old ones are scared to do it; young ones don’t know how to do it’). He convinces us – but he does not convince his superiors. ‘We have no right to experiment’, he is told. ‘We are not gods’. But the title of the film is Bogowie – gods, in English – precisely because we do come to believe that the atheist Religa is, indeed, a god of sorts. He is present in every scene, striding, irascible, drawing on the umpteenth cigarette of the day, driving his lime-green Lada at impossible speeds in his all-conquering self-belief.
Balked in Warsaw, he quits and takes up the offer of his own clinic in Zabrze, near Katowice. Religa had not carried his superiors with him – and he failed to win over his wife to his madcap scheme. ‘I’ve been offered my own clinic’, he tells her. ‘I’ll divorce you if you leave’, she replies. The tension in his marriage is a potent emotional backdrop to his efforts to have his way.
Perhaps it is one of the problems of such a compressed two-hour vision of his two-year struggle with officialdom that the conversion of the bare shell of a 1970s building into a more-or-less equipped and functioning clinic – in the industrial wasteland of Silesia – borders on the comical. He recruits doctors and nurses in a matter of minutes, and has them do the work of the bricklayers and tilers and plumbers he’s thrown out for drunken laziness. Beds are delivered and wards take shape rather frantically – but we are cajoled into thinking this is what happened, and we believe it.
There’s comedy in the superstitious fears expressed by good Polish Catholics: ‘Will he be any different with this new heart?’ a mother asks when it’s proposed that her son is given a donor’s heart. When for so long the heart had been supposed to be the seat of one’s emotions and personality, it came hard to think of it simply as a blood-pump – a rather sophisticated muscle.
Religa’s first heart transplant was carried out in 1985. There were failures; there was much literal and metaphorical heart-searching (the squeamish may have to look away at times); but the force of Religa’s character – and of Kot’s forceful characterization – wins his detractors round. The Guardian critic derided what he called ‘the swelling orchestral score’ and ‘the iron-curtain period kitsch’; but these were of a piece with a time that perhaps it takes a Pole to recall in all its gloom. It does not take a Pole to acknowledge that Bogowie is a film, Religa a surgeon, and Kot an actor, to make Poles justifiably proud.
Colin Swatridge is the author of A Country Full of Aliens: A Briton in Hungary, published by Corvina Press.