Recently, I was asked to screen the German film “Effigy: Poison and the City” directed by Udo Flohr. I went in blind, no idea at all what the movie was about, other than being told it is a historical drama. Well, I love movies, I love history, and I love Germany. I was all in.
The movie takes place in Bremen in the 1820s. Two women are at the center of the film. Cato Böhmer played by Elisa Thiemann, is a young legal assistant who went against societies expectations to work in Law. Remember, women are supposed to stay home and do handiwork (her response? “writing is handiwork”). And the notorious Gesche Gottfried. Notorious? Frau Gottfried was a killer… and not just any killer… she was among the first female Serial Killers ever identified, and in the end, she was the last person ever publicly executed in the city-state of Bremen.
But that comes in the end… the film itself is about the investigation, and the role of women in society.
When Fraulein Böhmer shows up to work with Senator Droste, he’s uncomfortable with the situation. A woman in the legal profession? Unheard of, but she is qualified (even over-qualified), and he needs assistance. He is also tied up in the idea of bringing the Railroad to link Bremen with Bremerhaven (a side story that can get a little confusing), and his reputation hangs making it happen.
Fraulein Böhmer proves her worth, and when a local official brings an accusation of possible arsenic poisoning to Senator Droste’s office, they must investigate. Initially, they assume Gesche Gottfried is another victim. And she plays it very well… proclaiming innocence and illness. But neighbors keep coming forward with stories… stories about how Frau Gottfried is just so unlucky with people dying around her. Her parents, her brother, her husband, her children…all evidence points to her, but they require a confession.
During this time, the investigation of a crime was done by the “Inquisition Method” which means that a confession is essential. And it must happen in front of two court witnesses. Gesche Gottfried, played by played by Suzan Anbeh is seemingly aware of this, so she plays innocent, even flirtatious, but then gives bits away when she is alone with one of them.
She is finally caught up and gives herself away.
The movie Effigy” Poison and the City” is not a quick action film. It moves along at a slower pace, building and gathering until it reaches the conclusion. Although the film is primarily in German, it is subtitled, and the pace is slow enough for people to practice their language skills. (The flashback or memory parts are English… what does it say that it took me a while to notice?)
I loved the setting of the film. (Northern Germany is so beautiful) You get to see a bit of the old city of Bremen and surrounding countryside. And there is great attention paid to period detail. My favorite might have been the scene where the scientist went through the steps of sampling and testing the poison to show that it was in fact arsenic. But everything from clothing to furniture, and even the food, reflect Bremen in the 1800s.
The film did send me down the rabbit hole, to learn more about Gesche Gottfried. Her notoriety was well deserved. It is thought that she killed at least 15 people in Bremen and Hanover using Mausebutter (a mouse cheese mixed with Arsenic). She got away with it for so long because this was the early 1800s, and people died of cholera and infection. Still, this many deaths raised suspicions that couldn’t be ignored. In the end, her beheading was the last public execution in Bremen. And today, in front of the Rathaus, there is a square basalt stone with a cross set into the ground, marking the place where her head stopped rolling. This “Spuckstein” (spitting stone) is the last reminder Gesche Gottfried, the Angel of Bremen.