Edward Zebrowski’s Hospital of the Transfiguration (1979) adapts one of Stanisław Lem’s earliest novels, one far removed from the intergalactic japes for which the writer is best known. Instead, the decidedly non-sci-fi story takes place in a Polish hospital for the the mentally ill on the eve of the Nazi occupation. Lem’s typically psychedelic musings on existence are displaced from the outer reaches of the galaxy to an exceedingly grim corner of recent human history. Zebrowski’s patient film inches toward political violence, contemplating the very institution of medicine before the luxury of such musings becomes property of the regime.
Piotr Dejmerk plays Stefan, a freshly minted doctor more idealistic than his contemporaries, some of whom seek control, others knowledge. Stefan himself remains committed to his oath, pursuing the comfort of his patients in their woeful states. He agitates, but meekly at first, fully aware of his low position. As he and his colleagues discuss treatment options for seemingly incurable maladies, the Germans gradually descend upon the remote hospital, forcing the doctors to debate whether to flee, collaborate or fight. To his credit, Zebrowski refuses to frame the choice as simple.
Surprisingly, given the overall sedate tone of the film, Zebrowski concludes with some of the most haunting and vivid representations of Nazi atrocities ever captured on film. The cool, introspective spell he casts during the film’s first 70 minutes is unravelled and violently reframed as the SS arrives to “amputate” the afflicted from the national body. We know better, but can’t help but hope for some futuristic mechanism to save the day.