Effigy Poison and the City

Effigy: Poison and the City (Effigie – Das Gift und die Stadt) (2019)

Udo Flohr’s Effigy: Poison and the City (Effigie – Das Gift und die Stadt) may be a period film, but it begins with intimations of change fast approaching. “The first time I traveled to Bremen, the railways didn’t even exist yet,” says the voiceover that opens the film. “I will never forget those months I spent there in the year 1828.” Those lines are delivered as retrospective narrative, from a future some 20 years ahead, by which time a locomotive service – with all the mobility and inclusion that it promises – has already been established. In the narrator’s present, Bremen was becoming a more open, outward-looking city – a process of modernisation which had only begun in 1827 (one year before the film’s main events) when the new sea port of Bremerhaven was established, making Bremen a hub of trade, travel and shipbuilding. There is something else about the film’s opening narration that point towards the future: the voice speaking is female.

The narrator is 24-year-old Cato Böhmer (Elisa Thiemann), who has been working for the last two years as a law clerk in the more progressive city of Göttingen, and now taken a post in Bremen. “Shouldn’t a Fräulein like you be doing some handiwork?”, asks her new boss, the widower Senator Droste (Christoph Gottschalch), when he first realises that she is not the man he was expecting. Yet Droste, whose enthusiasm for opening a rail line to Bremen marks him as a man with his eye on the future, is far more liberal than the men around him, and is quick to recognise Böhmer’s talents where others merely dismiss her.

Masculinity is not all that is toxic here. For the first case that Böhmer is sent to investigate is a potential poisoning, after a suspicious white substance is found on some bacon by the recently widowed wheelmaker Rumpff (Peer Roggendorf). This leads Böhmer to interview Rumpff’s neighbour Gesche Gottfried (Suzan Anbeh), known as ‘Angel’ for her charitable works. At first Gottfried, an attractive widow with a long line of spurned suitors in her wake, looks like the poisoner’s target, but it is not long before she herself has become the prime suspect, as evidence mounts that she is at the epicentre of multiple unnatural deaths spanning decades. The Senator and his Clerk must race to get a confession from Gottfried before Captain Ehlers (Roland Jankowky), who regards Droste’s support for the establishment of a local train service as a threat to his own investments in the shipping business, can get Droste deposed from office via underhanded means.

“In life, as in politics,” Ehlers tells Böhmer as he shows her the workings of his letter copying press, “it’s the pressure that counts.” Böhmer knows something about pressure, as a young woman whose determined path towards a legal career has been hampered by her lack of access to the nation’s all-male universities, and by the broader gendered inequalities of nineteenth-century German society. The older Gottfried too, though a serial killer who take perverse pleasure in holding the lives of others (family, friends, strangers) in the balance, is less a monster born than made, as much victim as villainess, having been unhappily married out young and required to produce multiple children she never wanted, and having, since she was a little girl, been exposed to the most horrific, even murderous aspects of patriarchy that left her both mentally scarred and all too aware of her sex’s expendability. 

Effigy Poison and the City
The pastor (Manfred Schlosser) turns his back on serial poisoner Gesche Gottfried (Suzan Anbeh)

In accordance with the conventions of the times, the clergy deems – and demonises – Gottfried’s acts as Satanic sins, but the more enlightened Droste frames her deeds according to the new-fangled French notions of ‘murderous monomania’. In this way, Droste is able, much like the film itself, to find sympathy for the devil, and to psychologise, if not quite rationalise, Gottfried’s unhinged outrages, in much the way that ‘a natural explanation’ will eventually be found for an apocalyptic blood rain that falls over Bremen during the exhumation of a cadaver. 

Gottfried, like Böhmer, has been subjected to male oppression, and both have managed to rise above the confines of their gender, even if Böhmer alone finds a salutary way to escape her prescribed station. Yet where Böhmer will move on and progress, Gottfried will always be trapped in one or another of the imposed rôles that she performs, and will end up being left behind – an effigy fixed and preserved in a jar, her true self reduced merely to a distorted, grotesque image. Now she is both icon and deterrent to the next generation of women – a generation embodied by Böhmer who looks on the hideous visage of her “old acquaintance” with equal pity and disgust.

Shot in a plain, unfussy style that places the focus on the (excellent) performers and their interactions, Effigy: Poison and the City follows a ensemble of people alternatively struggling towards – or working against – a truth within a closed system that is only just opening itself to radical change. As such, Flohr’s film plays like a nineteenth-century Hanseatic response to Fritz Lang’s M (M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, 1931), Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) or David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) – in which a hidden killer unmasks the poisonous ills of a society in transformation. For in showing Bremen’s stark class divisions, insidious corruption, and casual misogyny and anti-Semitism, this plays like a city symphony in negative.

As, some two decades after the event, Böhmer narrates this tale – in fact based on a historical cause célèbre and original trial records as much as on co-writer Peer Meter’s stage play The Interrogation of Gesche Gottfried (Die Verhöre der Gesche Gottfried: Ein Kammerspiel des Graunes, 1996) – she is riding on the new train to Bremen, there are notices all over the city promoting Karl Marx’s recently published revolutionary pamphlet The Communist Manifesto (1848), and the future has well and truly arrived.

strap: Udo Flohr’s poisonous period drama contrasts two women struggling to make their mark in the toxic patriarchy of nineteenth-century Bremen

© Anton Bitel