'Effigy: Poison and the City': Film Review

Courtesy of GeekFrog Media LLC
A modest true-crime tale that prioritizes history over thrills.

Udo Flohr's debut fictionalizes the hunt for the 'Angel of Bremen,' who poisoned 15 people nearly two centuries ago.

Far from the movie viewers may expect when they hear the words "German serial killer," Effigy: Poison and the City takes a dignified, old-fashioned approach to homicidal insanity that befits its early-19th century setting. Based on a play by Peer Meter inspired by the crimes of real-life killer Gesche Margarethe Gottfried, aka "the Angel of Bremen," the film reimagines the killer's discovery and capture, using it as an opportunity for a young female law clerk to prove herself to the doubtful men around her. Though clearly made on a tight budget, Udo Flohr's feature debut finds a seriousness to match its unshowy production values, likely endearing it more to history buffs than thriller fans.

Elisa Thiemann plays narrator and protagonist Cato Bohmer, newly hired in 1828 as a law clerk in Bremen. Practically everyone she deals with points out how unusual it is for a woman to hold the job, but her immediate supervisor, Senator Droste (Christoph Gottschalch), sets his skepticism aside: Bohmer's eager professionalism and initiative-taking will be essential to the investigation to come.

Things start oddly when Droste, a kind of one-man courtroom who evaluates cases for referral to higher courts, is asked to look at a controversial slab of bacon. A local man is convinced his family is being poisoned; he points to white flecks on the meat as the cause of the vomiting and diarrhea plaguing his household.

Many townsfolk have long believed a serial poisoner lives among them, and even known who she was. But Droste, the city's mayor and other officials have been occupied with grander issues, like plans to build a shipping port and debates over a proposed railroad line. Flohr's screenplay, written with playwright Meter and Antonia Roeller, tidily works these concerns — and the political angling and corruption that go with them — into the belated investigation of killings officials have managed not to notice for many years.

As clerk to the main investigator, Bohmer participates from the start in dealing with Suzan Anbeh's Gottfried, who initially isn't a suspect but a protected witness. She seeks refuge in Droste's jail, claiming that the poisoner is targeting her and flirting with him as he offers her a warm cell for the night. Then she manages to kill two civilians right under his nose, shaming Droste and giving Bohmer some detecting to do.

Much is made of "mouse butter," the arsenic-laced lard commonly used to kill rodents in that era. Gottfried liked to put it in everything from sandwiches to tea, slowly (or less slowly) sickening family members, landlords and the impoverished neighbors she generously fed on a regular basis. We watch as investigators use early forensic techniques to prove mouse butter was the weapon, then build a case against Gottfried.

A trip to a paupers' graveyard is called for, with a mass exhumation being just one of several tasks that are "not suitable for a fraulein": The film isn't terribly subtle in spelling out the obstacles a woman faces in this line of work, but Thiemann never turns the insults into an opportunity for righteous indignation. Bohmer just does her job, even when it means outmaneuvering her boss's rivals to save his skin.

Aside from talk of barf and rotting innards, Effigy is hardly a grisly film. It's not even very menacing in its mood. Stagey scenes pit confounded investigators against their suspect, who toys with them a bit as they try to imagine her motives; but these are no Clarice/Hannibal staredowns, and Anbeh is no more eager than Thiemann to turn her character into a cliche. In the end, "murderous monomania" is the best explanation our heroes can offer themselves, decades before Jack the Ripper and others would make the psyche of serial killers a common obsession.

Production company: GeekFrog Media
Distributor: Laemmle Virtual Cinema
Cast: Suzan Anbeh, Elisa Thiemann, Christoph Gottschalch, Roland Jankowsky, Uwe Bohm, Marc Ottiker, Tom Keidel, Christian Intorp
Director: Udo Flohr
Screenwriters: Peer Meter, Udo Flohr, Antonia Roeller
Producers: Patricia Ryan, Udo Flohr
Executive producers: Sven Patrick Jacobshagen
Director of photography: Thomas Kist
Production designers: Christina V. Ahlefeldt, Knut Splett-Henning
Costume designers: Katja Pilgrim, Lada Stepanenko
Music: Nic Raine
Editor: Sven Pape

In German
84 minutes