“Medical Doctors Rule the City”:

Roman Załuski’s Zaraza / The Epidemic and the 1963 Smallpox Outbreak in Wrocław

Mikołaj Kunicki
Using film analysis and primary and secondary sources, this article examines Roman Załuski’s Zaraza / The Epidemic (1971), the only pandemic feature film produced in Poland to this date. The movie is inspired by the 1963 epidemic of smallpox in Wrocław, one of the last outbreaks of this disease in Europe. The epidemic resulted in 99 infections and seven deaths. The authorities responded with the mass vaccination of 426,000 residents (95% of the city’s population), the compulsory isolation of infected patients and all those who came in contact with them, and the cordoning of the city. Wrocław was declared free of smallpox in September 1963, two months after the discovery of infections. Załuski’s film outlines the course of the epidemic and measures taken by health services and authorities. However, the movie does not provide a precise, documentary reconstruction of the 1963 events. Instead, Załuski aspired, in his own words, to tell a universal, realistic story about a plague and the medical and social responses to it. He changed the names of real-life people and introduced fictional subplots and characters, including the main protagonist, epidemiologist Adam Rawicz (Tadeusz Borowski). This article concentrates on Załuski’s portrayal of the epidemic, especially, his depiction of healthcare workers, medical procedures, and social reactions. It argues that the director’s representation of the struggle against epidemic is hardly universal and significantly differs from cinematic conventions common in the West. Shot in communist Poland, The Epidemic depicts the outbreak of infectious disease and its handling in a non-democratic country under state socialism. Hence, the movie provides invaluable insights into physicians’ relationship with the authoritarian state.
Roman Załuski; Poland; Wrocław; Polish cinema; authoritarianism; epidemic; smallpox; communism; physicians.


Zaraza : Visions of a Plague

Policing Society during a Pandemic: Physicians as Agents of an Authoritarian State





Suggested Citation


Roman Załuski’s Zaraza / The Epidemic (1972, Poland), the only “pandemic” feature film produced in Poland to this date, is based on the 1963 smallpox outbreak in Wrocław, which was brought to the city by Polish intelligence officer Colonel Bonifacy Jedynak (otherwise known as Patient Zero [PZ]), who had been infected in India (Maciorowski 2020). The epidemic resulted in 99 infections and seven deaths, including 4 health workers. The authorities responded with the mass vaccination of 426,000 people (95% of the city’s population) in Wrocław and about 8 million people in the entire country (Żuk and Żuk 2019: 6128-6129). The campaign went hand in hand with the mandatory isolation of infected patients and those who came in contact with them. From mid-July until mid-September 1963, the city was cordoned off from the rest of the country as people travelling to and from Wrocław needed to present certificates of vaccination. Shops, cinemas, theaters, museums, and restaurants remained open. However, the authorities declared a state of emergency, closed swimming pools and public baths, and banned wedding celebrations and banquets. On August 1, 1963, just two weeks after the announcement of the epidemic, vaccinations became compulsory. Those evading them risked fines and detentions for up to three months. All these measures, combined with the massive use of chloramine-based disinfectants and reduced physical contact (like avoiding handshakes), paid off. On September 19, 1963, Wrocław was declared to be free of smallpox. The 1963 epidemic constituted one of the last outbreaks of this disease in Europe.1

Załuski’s film on this epidemic can be approached and read from multiple perspectives. With its bird-eye shots, cityscapes, and local flavour, Zaraza is a “Wrocław movie”, which internalises the former German metropolis of Breslau as Polish, emphasising the city’s vitality and forward-looking perspective. Its contemporary plot also breaks from the historical theme of World War II that had dominated the Polish cinema in the 1960s.2 This analysis, however, focuses on Załuski’s film as a pandemic story.

While Załuski narrates the course of the epidemic, he does not provide a precise documentary reconstruction of the 1963 events, even though it takes place in Wrocław. Instead, Zaraza aspires to be an ahistorical, universal story of health services’ responses to pandemics. However, this “universal” approach has some limitations given that the film was shot in communist Poland. Would Western democratic governments handle epidemics the same way as their Eastern counterparts, who often relied on authoritarian solutions and evaded transparency? There are also the cultural aspects to consider. As a result, Załuski’s portrayal of the epidemic differed from cinematic conventions common in the West by the 1970s: quasi-pandemic Cold War sci-fi movies such as Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, USA), George A. Romero’s zombie and exploitation films, and post-apocalyptic visions of mankind succumbing to pandemics and reverting to barbarism as in The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971, USA).

Realistic and informed by Polish and communist subtexts, Załuski’s film largely ignores the aforementioned genres and narratives. Instead, it shares common themes with both classic and newer Hollywood films. First, it taps into what Priscilla Wald defines as “the outbreak narrative” of contagious diseases appearing locally, then spreading globally, only to be contained by modern science (Wald 2008). Second, it depicts physicians, particularly epidemiologists, as cultural heroes who, in the words of Christos Lynteris, “foster social cohesion” not only by means of their scientific training and technical skills, but also through their selflessness and sacrifice (Lynteris 2016: 37).

Lynteris’s socio-anthropological analysis of Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011, USA), also identifies one condition contemporary films deemed as necessary for the defeat of “killer viruses”: humanity must embrace “the neoliberal government principle of self-limitation” (2016: 37). I argue that Zaraza conveys a similar message about the socialist system, showing the uneasy, yet ultimately successful alliance between physicians and the authoritarian state, particularly the communist party and police force. While reporting on the 1963 outbreak, Polska Kronika Filmowa/Polish Film Chronicle (PKF), the official newsreel service shown in cinemas, declared that Wrocław was “ruled by medical doctors”. Although this message resembles the present-day claims of governments “following science”, it is far from true. While Zaraza centers on the actions of physicians, it also demonstrates the sheer might of the state, which does not collapse in the face of plague.

This essay is divided into sections that address the movie’s production, its depiction of the epidemic, the portrayal of health workers and their relationship with the state, and how Zaraza was assessed by the authorities and contemporary film critics. Before launching into these issues, however, a few words are needed about film production in People’s Poland. Although state-owned, the Polish film industry became partly decentralised in 1955 with the creation of film production units (zespoły filmowe) that were partly artistic, partly economic enterprises. These units oversaw the first review of proposed films and forwarded successful projects to the Script Assessment Commissions (Komisje Ocen Scenariuszy) and Commissions of Film Approval (Komisje Kolaudacyjne). Part government, part industry bodies, the commissions were led by the head of the Polish film industry and populated with filmmakers, communist party officials in charge of culture and propaganda, film critics and censors. Assessment meetings approved or denied film production and distribution, thereby constituting the predominant practice of “censoring” films in communist Poland.

Zaraza: Visions of a Plague

When graphic artist Waldemar Świerzy was commissioned to design a poster for Zaraza, he produced a composition that captured the content and form of Roman Załuski’s film. We can see the face of the protagonist, doctor Adam Rawicz (Tadeusz Borowski), appearing out of dark dots that resemble the macules characteristic of smallpox. Swierzy’s poster also signifies that the movie consists of numerous narratives and vignettes that form a whole.

Załuski (born 1936) based his film on the account of the 1963 outbreak by journalist Jerzy Ambroziewicz (1931-1995), one of the country’s finest reporters in the 1960s and a prominent TV personality in the 1970s. Originally published in 1965, Ambroziewicz’s Zaraza was a bestseller that combined a multi-account narrative with oral interviews and the “creative fiction” characteristic of journalistic novels. It lacked a single protagonist; instead, it was populated by a dozen of leading characters, mostly physicians, who took part in the struggle against the epidemic. Other witnesses included former patients, health officials, and municipal workers. What bound the plot together was the chronology of the epidemic and the stages in its eradication, e.g., the discovery of smallpox, setting up of isolation facilities, tracking of specific cases, vaccination campaign, and the work of specific medical units. Written in accordance with the best “pandemic” traditions of the world literature, Ambroziewicz’s book contained riveting vignettes of the epidemic, provided an exciting reading experience, and popularised knowledge of the Wrocław outbreak among Poles.

The first director seeking to make a film about the Wrocław outbreak was Andrzej Wajda, who wanted to adapt the format of Albert Camus’s The Plague to contemporary Polish reality. Wajda intended to focus on a female doctor whose marital crisis evolved along with the advancing outbreak. However, in the end he deemed Ambroziewicz’s story to be too difficult to adapt and gave up working on the script (Raczkowski 2020).

When Roman Załuski began his work on Zaraza in 1971, he invited Ambroziewicz to co-write the screenplay. The director was still in the early stages of his career, having made only one full-length feature film, Kardiogram / Cardiogram (1971), about a physician, Dr Rawicz, confronting the challenges of life in a small town. Warmly received by critics and audiences, Kardiogram represented a new subgenre of Polish cinema in the 1970s, films that focused on young professionals as agents of progress, parachuted into a new living and working environment. The narrative fit in well with the “patriotism of labour” preached by the new communist leader, Edward Gierek (1913-2001), who replaced Władysław Gomułka in 1970.3

Released in 1972, Zaraza was largely based on Ambroziewicz’s book. Załuski and Ambroziewicz reduced the number of characters and introduced a main hero, epidemiologist Adam Rawicz, named after the protagonist of Kardiogram and played by the same actor, Tadeusz Borowski. Other notable characters included Dr Wilkoń, chief of the Centre for Disease and Epidemic Control, Dr Olczak, the director of an isolation centre, Dr Bielski from emergency medical services, and Dr Konopacka from the special hospital for smallpox patients. All characters were based on real-life health workers who played prominent roles in the containment of the epidemic. Rawicz was partly modeled on Dr Bogumił Arendzikowski, the first epidemiologist to diagnose the 1963 outbreak and one of Załuski’s medical consultants.

Załuski aimed to enhance authenticity. The movie was shot on location and featured prominent sites of the 1963 outbreak, including the palace in Szczodre, outside Wrocław, which housed the first special hospital for infected patients. Many important scenes and images, such as showing isolated children, adults gazing across a barbed wire at the quarantine centre, police roadblocks set up outside the city limits, decontaminating procedures, and health workers wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), were copied from newsreel footage from Operacja VV / Operation VV (1963), which was filmed in Wrocław by Józef Bakalarski, the only filmmaker allowed to visit the city during the outbreak (Kraska-Lewalski 2019) (Fig. 1-3).

Decontamination of an ambulance at the quarantine centre in Wrocław. Caption from Operacja VV.
Isolated children gaze across a fence at the quarantine centre in Wrocław. Caption from Operacja VV.
A doorman and police officer stand at the entrance to the special hospital for smallpox patients in Szczodre, outside Wrocław. Caption from Operacja VV.

For the storyline, Załuski used the vignette narrative format, with the character Dr Rawicz acting as the bridge. The opening scene, accompanied by eerie music, is a tracking shot with the camera moving from the line of the horizon to a panorama of Wrocław, zooming in to the city center, and stopping at the busy intersection on Kościuszko Square. Then we see documentary shots of the Wrocław Flower Celebration, an annual street festival marking the coming of summer. This is a carefree metropolis, unaware of lurking danger. Later, on Saturday evening, we accompany Rawicz as he meets an attractive girl, Ewa, at a club and spends the night with her. On Sunday morning, he receives the order to check out two very unusual cases of chickenpox, that of Dr Szemiot (Fig. 4), who is in his forties, and a small boy who already had this disease. Following the shocking encounter with Szemiot, who is nearly unrecognizable from the rash, Rawicz diagnoses smallpox against the vehement protests of senior colleagues. He alerts Wilkoń, his boss from the Centre for Disease and Epidemic Control and begins reconstructing the chain of infections.

Doctor Jacek Szemiot (Stanisław Michalik), the first correctly diagnosed smallpox patient. Caption from Zaraza.

We do not learn anything about PZ (Patient Zero) apart from the fact that he infected a ward nurse who passed virus to Dr Szemiot, her son, and her daughter Zosia, also a nurse and the first fatality of the epidemic. After contracting the disease from PZ, Zosia and her mother spread the virus to other medical facilities in Wrocław. Wilkoń shuts down three hospitals, alerts the authorities about the outbreak, and sets up the meeting of the crisis team, which involves senior members of the local government, communist party and police. We do not see the meeting of the committee nor do we learn about its instructions and recommendations. What follows is the implementation of the solutions adopted, the development of the contact tracing system, and the opening of new facilities for infected patients and those who were in contact with them. Significantly, the special hospital and isolating centre are partly staffed by health workers who had contact with infected patients, some repeatedly vaccinated, others not. Soon the authorities begin a mass vaccination campaign, reduce travel to and from the city – only holders of valid certificates of vaccination are allowed to travel – and keep law and order. The discovery of the epidemic and planning for containment measures take 30 minutes of the movie’s 92 minute running time. The remaining hour documents the heroic and selfless struggle of the protagonists, the mixed responses from society, and the logistics of policing people subjected to a state of epidemic emergency.

It should be noted that the dynamism of the movie stands in sharp contrast to the actual events. What takes 1-2 days in the movie lasted much longer in 1963. In fact, Wrocław physicians did not acknowledge the smallpox outbreak until one month after the first infections. The movie correctly conveys that the initial reactions of medical experts, which included misdiagnosed cases and general disbelief, demonstrated their incompetence. Although smallpox had been officially eradicated in Poland in 1935, the country saw two small outbreaks in the coastal cities of Gdańsk and Gdynia in 1953 and 1962 (Żuk and Żuk 2019: 6126). In Wrocław, the disease hit hospital workers hardest; they constituted 25 out of 99 cases. The reason for this high ratio was the neglect of the local healthcare management to enforce repeated vaccinations of medical staff that were supposed to have become obligatory after the 1962 Gdańsk outbreak. The movie reflects the reality: health services found themselves unprepared and quickly overwhelmed. The following conversation between Dr Olczak, who has agreed to head an isolation centre, and “Docent”, a senior physician who refused to accept the same assignment, illustrates this lack of preparedness for a pandemic.

Docent: If war broke out and its course depended on health service, we would lose it on the first day.
Olczak: But then we would start guerrilla warfare, rouse the nation for patriotic action, and defeat the enemy after a few years.
Docent: The problem is that we are still in the first stage.

What the movie mostly shows is how healthcare workers and authorities overcame the “first stage” and defeated smallpox. Interestingly, Załuski spends little time covering the unprecedented mass vaccination campaign, which proved decisive for a quick victory over the epidemic. At the beginning of the movie, Docent complains that the city has only enough doses to vaccinate a village. Then Dr Bielski from EMS encounters a group of angry vacationers who cannot leave for their holidays because they cannot obtain the vaccination certificates necessary for travel. However, later we see evidence of mass vaccinations: the majority of people waiting for taxis at the main railway station have certificates. In all likelihood, Załuski preferred to centre on the heroic frontline workers rather than the vaccination efforts carried out in an orderly fashion by anonymous medics in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and mobile centers. The main protagonists of his movie include epidemiologists (Rawicz and Wilkoń) (Fig. 5) and those physicians who treat infected patients (Konopacka), run quarantine facilities (Olczak) or are besieged by a patient mob (Bielski).

Doctor Adam Rawicz (Tadeusz Borowski) breaks to Wilkoń (Stanisław Michalski) the news of the smallpox outbreak. Caption from Zaraza.

While Rawicz is a “detective” tracking smallpox, Wilkoń is a Bonaparte commanding and deploying troops in the campaign against plague. If Bielski is a “sheriff” protecting the fortress of EMS, Olewicz, who succumbs to smallpox in the end of the movie, is a martyr. Konopacka, the only woman in this men’s world, becomes the darling of the mass media and, by extension, of the authorities (Fig. 6). During and after the epidemic, she is lavished with attention and state prizes, stirring resentment among some of her co-workers and supporting the opinion that the real heroes of the outbreak were unappreciated.

Doctor Konopacka (Iga Mayr) talks to a TV news presenter on the phone from the smallpox hospital. Caption from Zaraza.

Like Ambroziewicz’s book and other sources published prior to the collapse of communism, the film completely ignores the figure of Patient Zero, the classic element of any outbreak narrative. The fact that smallpox was brought to Wrocław by an officer of the security services remained a secret until 1989. For the communist state, which proudly claimed a decisive victory over the epidemic, the involvement or complicity of its janissaries was taboo.

The film’s treatment of the government centers on criticism of the bureaucracy, which is perfectly embodied by the character of the Minister of Health, a cold and disinterested dignitary who visits the first quarantine centre. Indeed, Załuski’s portrayal of the authorities was much harsher than in Ambroziewicz’s book. Bureaucrats left the city unprepared for the outbreak of a contagious disease or any other disaster. It is the devotion of people on the ground that is needed and appreciated. Later on, however, the movie projects what I call “the authoritarian alliance” between healthcare workers and authorities.

Policing Society during a Pandemic: Physicians as Agents of an Authoritarian State

Although pandemic movies often revert to the familiar themes of society regressing to barbarism alongside the collapse of the state, Załuski’s film does not follow this path. Inspired by recent historical events that were recognisable for Polish audiences, Zaraza does not depict a “coming pandemic” but instead relates to a vanquished disease. To that end, viewers are never in doubt that heroic doctors will defeat the plague. Furthermore, the socialist state proves resilient because it is omnipotent, able to enlist healthcare workers as its agents and, with their help, discipline society. It is also important that this tightly controlled society is not prone to anarchy and violence. While some individuals and small groups display such maladies as alcohol abuse, a lax attitude toward work or outright cowardice, all shown in the film, it is hard to imagine residents of Wrocław looting stores and vandalising their city.

One of the most potent examples of the authoritarian state at work in Załuski’s movie is the nightly roundup of people who were in contact with the infected. These expeditions of medics, accompanied by the police, pick up or rather detain individuals and entire families, sometimes against their will, placing them in isolation centers surrounded by barbed wire. On questions of compulsory quarantine and methods, health workers and authorities are in total agreement. “Why are you taking people away in the middle of the night?”, inquires Olewicz’s wife, while her husband is being picked up for a quarantine and to set up an isolating facility. “Because during the day we have other tasks, collecting interviews, tracing contacts”, replies Rawicz. “Besides, we are sure that at this time we will find them at home.”

Załuski rejected the use of the macabre because he wanted to make a realistic and serious movie. “We have chosen another way: we try to induce the sense of threat with a few ambulances driving in the night under the escort of police jeeps”, he said. “It seems to me that because everyone can imagine himself in such a situation, we are evoking a danger that is credible to everybody” (Janicka 1972: 21-22). Indeed, Polish audiences were quite familiar with the reality of police rule.