• Golden Globe Awards

Effigy: Poison and the City (Germany, United States)

Historical dramas and serial killer thrillers typically conjure their own set of cinematic tropes. But the sneakily ambitious Effigy: Poison and the City unfolds against these shared backdrops in an intriguing manner. Eschewing for the most part both procedural thrills and a deep investment in exploring any psychological motivations of its subjects, the directorial debut of erstwhile science and technology journalist Udo Flohr lands instead as a unique work of societal portraiture.
The modestly budgeted Effigy unfolds in 1828 in the German port city of Bremen, digging down into a somewhat fictionalized version of a most sensational true crime story. At its center is Gesche Margarethe Gottfried (Suzan Anbeh, perhaps best known to international audiences as Meg Ryan’s romantic antagonist in 1995’s French Kiss), a woman whose outward care for her community’s sick and poor masks the fact that she’s killed 15 people, including her parents, two husbands, children, and a fiancé – all with surreptitiously delivered doses of “mouse butter,” the nickname for arsenic-laced lard used to control the rodent population of that era. Eventual consequence arrives by way of Cato Böhmer (Elisa Thiemann), a perceptive and diligent young female law clerk who begins surveying Gottfried’s neighbors after securing a position with Senator Droste (Christoph Gottschalch), the government official tasked with evaluating cases for referral to courts for possible prosecution.
Effigy is notable for dabbling a bit in a pre-forensic investigation, but Flohr’s screenplay, co-written with Antonia Roeller and playwright Peer Meter, chiefly plays out as a female-oriented pas de deux at the clamorous intersection of entrenched bureaucracy and more forward-looking plans for city expansion, including a proposed railroad line and possible shipping port. In this regard, then, the movie’s title, while on the surface seeming to represent something altered if not lost in translation, can eventually be seen as a perfect evocation of Flohr’s broader interests – an examination not merely of scandalous murder, but of social masks and progress, and the larger, hidden societal issues that are sometimes unearthed by the advancement of the latter.
After having debuted in the city of its setting, at Filmfest Bremen, and then enjoyed a Stateside premiere at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, Effigy saw commercial release via streaming platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic.