Frau Gottfried is killing people with kindness. Literally.
The pretty German lady is always there when someone – a spouse, a relative, a neighbor – takes ill. She typically devotes days, even weeks to tenderly nursing them, even moving into their homes to see after their meals. It’s terrible all her patients end up dying.
And, maybe, just a little bit suspicious.
How those suspicions build into a criminal case is the story of Effigy: Poison and the City, a first film from German director Udo Flohr. Set in 1830s Bremen, it’s both a coldly crisp true-crime drama and an artful study of two fascinating characters.
The first, of course, is Gesche Gottfried herself, played by Suzan Anbeh. She’s a lonely, even love-starved woman, prone to flirt with men and women alike, sometimes surprising the townspeople with her casually uncombed hair and unbuttoned tops. But what does that hunger conceal? And how far is she willing to go to feel needed?
The second is Cato Bohmer, played by the primly rational Elisa Thiehmann. She’s a newcomer in town, and an oddity, a female law clerk assigned to the local magistrate. But perhaps because the feminist Bohmer knows what great things women are capable of accomplishing, she knows what evil they can do as well, and she’s soon on Gottfried’s case.
It’s a cat-and-mouse game – fitting, as it turns out the victims are being killed with “mouse butter,” an arsenic-laden paste sold for pest control. But it’s Bohmer who’s the cat here, as she both plays the legal angles and goes around them, stealing a secret document when necessary, making sure an eavesdropper is on hand to hear a confession.
Both actresses are very good, particularly Anbeh, who gives Gottfried an earthy power as well as a tender, tortured humanity. Like another German movie villain, the child murderer in Fritz Lang’s “M” – one of cinema’s first serial killers – she can’t help herself. In fact, at times she even grieves for her own victims, sobbing.
And then goes out and kills again.
It’s all captured with precision by director Udo Flohr, whose unfussy style is mirrored in the spare sets, all unvarnished wood and bare walls. This is a world stripped to its essentials and it is a quiet visual reminder that plain, straightforward Cato will soon pare Gottfried’s intricate lies down to their unadorned truths as well.
If Effigy: Poison and the City has a flaw at all, it’s that it’s a little too economical. Although the murder investigation is always in the foreground, the background is crowded with history, politics, and gender – the recent Napoleonic wars, the coming of the railroad, the role of women – most of which goes by in a blur. As the film already races by at a brisk 84 minutes, there was time – and you wish the director had taken the opportunity – to go a little deeper.
But when was the last time you heard anyone complain a film wasn’t long enough?