‘Effigy – Poison And The City’: Macabre Crimes, Handsome Film
Udo Flohr’s period drama, “Effigy – Poison And The City” dramatizes the bizarre true crime story of Gesche Gottfried (Suzan Anbeh) who murdered 15 people, mostly her family members and friends, by poisoning them in the German port city of Bremen in the 1820s. The film takes a procedural approach to the lurid tale, weaving together the economic climate in Bremen, the position of women in society and the municipal investigation into the deaths.
The result is a handsome production and an absorbing story even if the subplots and secondary characters sometimes blur the film’s main focus. There is the character of Senator Droste (Christoph Gottschalch) who is eager to develop nearby marshland so he can profit from the coming railway and whose views conflict with other local leaders who want to promote expansion of Bremen’s port. Droste’s new law clerk, Cato Böhmer (Elisa Thiemann), is efficient and capable but must put up with sexism as she simply tries to do her job. When she tells Droste that she’s heard that in America women can apply to law school, her boss promptly advises her to emigrate.
Böhmer is tasked with investigating Gottfried, a widow who’s been dubbed “the angel of Bremen” for feeding poor neighbors and nursing others who’ve fallen in. Trouble is, this seeming kindness masks a more sinister, if ambiguous, motive. Gottfried herself is poisoning these folks with “mouse butter,” an easily acquired arsenic mixture used to kill rodents. Some of the film’s most intriguing scenes are between these two very different women each facing suspicions rooted in the sexism of the times.
Since it’s based on a play by the film’s co-writer Peer Meter, it’s not surprising that “Effigy” is often talky and its timeline confusing as the investigation unearths witnesses and other substantial evidence against Gottfried. Even if you already know of her guilt and that she was the last person to be publicly executed in the city of Bremen for her crimes, the film provides an engrossing look at one of the strangest and more sensational serial murderers in the history of true crime.