Portrait: Poison and the City. Available now in the Laemmle Virtual Cinema.
In Fritz Lang’s creepy classic M from 1931, the alleged serial child murderer (unless he’s played by Peter Lorre, so you know he’s guilty), Hans Beckert faces a group of street criminals who want to execute him. Process”. “I can not help myself!” he protests. “I have no control over this evil thing that is inside of me – the fire, the voices, the agony!”
Gesche Gottfried, the arsenic connoisseur in Effigy: Poison and The City, is certainly a spiritual descendant of Beckert. Jailed for poisoning virtually everyone she has ever met – her husbands, parents, children (“This maternity thing is overrated,” she explains to an investigator), neighbors, even a few visitors to her prison cell – she listens with keen attention during the Prison chaplain shares the biblical story of Abraham and prepares to sacrifice his own son at God’s command. “Did he enjoy that?” breathlessly she inquires of the priest.
The weird, annoying little effigy – like M, both in Germany and Germany – has been playing at film festivals around the world for more than a year and has won many awards, but never an American theatrical release or TV show on the today until its debut Laemmle Virtual Cinema streaming service. Made by a team of newbies – its director and three screenwriters have a previous feature film on their collective résumé – it’s an eccentric but intriguing mix of murder, psychopathy, weird feminism, and primitive police practice.
Effigy is set in the German port city of Bremen in 1828 and follows the investigation into Gottfried, a real-life serial killer who was to be beheaded after being convicted of 15 murders. (The townspeople were still spitting on the spot on the floor where their severed head stopped rolling.) If it seems that after the first five or six years a suspicion might arise – well, there were reasons for the Bremer Authorities to doubt a series murderers on their hands.
Gottfried was famous for her family – even when caring for a notoriously unfaithful husband on his deathbed who (it was whispered) had an incurable case of syphilis. She was kind to her less fortunate neighbors and fed them meals during difficult times. And who could be so unkind to call for official questioning such a pretty (and flirtatious!) Woman, whose life had been a magnet for misfortune?
This all changes as soon as a new investigator enters the scene. Cato Böhmer is smart and experienced in the relatively new science of forensic medicine, using autopsies and tissue tests at a time when most murders are cleared up through confession. The most impressive weapon on Boehmer’s orders, however, is gender: the lonely woman in a pack of prosecutors and police officers is immune to Gottfried’s coquetry and unimpressed by stereotypes about the innate caring properties of mothers and women. Nor is she buying the idea that no mere woman could plan and carry out a series of murders unaided – that “a woman’s fragile mind requires a man to lead,” an argument that has been used to hamper Boehmer’s own career.
Böhmer uses laboratory work to prove that the trail of death according to Gottfried is not the result of cholera or typhoid, as many police officers believe, but of arsenic poisoning, and quickly builds a strong circumstantial case against her quarry. Even so, her male superiors are concerned about the lack of an obvious motive and are reluctant to argue in court that Gottfried started a murder frenzy for no “rhyme or reason”, as if she were in some sort of frenzy, as one of them put it.
But Gottfried is also clever. She mocks and teases the authorities – in particular by admitting her guilt one after another and knowing that German law at the time only allowed confessions if they were heard by two witnesses – she spreads division among her ranks. The political corruption (Bremen is in the midst of the controversy whether it should continue to finance the port operations or switch to the support of a new transport technology, the railroad) further confuses the picture.
What really makes Effigy work is the excellent work of its two leading actresses, neither of whom are known in the US. Elisa Thiemann is a wonder of restraint as Cato Böhmer, who is mistreated by both sides of the law while she dreams of America, where, as she has heard, a woman can study law. And Suzan Anbeh (who starred in the Lawrence Kasdan caper comedy French Kiss 15 years ago) exudes so much goodwill and seductive sexuality like Gottfried that you can only wonder if she could really be a killer, no matter what You are only seen with your own eyes.