This year’s least catchy title disguises a rather fascinating film; Udo Flohr’s German language period drama is not one for casual viewers, but is rewarding for those willing to focus. An interest in the subject helps; this is the story of a serial killer, and is based on real events, but put aside any anxieties about blood-letting; this is an intensely cerebral film, and one which makes few concessions to the many lurid ancestors which exist within in this genre.
The setting is Bremen, Germany in the 1820’s; the coming of rail promises to transform the country’s prospects, and looking at the success of the nearby port of Lubeck offers fresh opportunity to land-owners and merchants alike. Of course, those in charge are largely men, but Cato Böhmer (Elisa Thiemann) arrives in the town to challenge the glass ceiling of male dominance. Cato is soon drawn into another mystery; some locals have been poisoned with a substance known as ‘mouse butter’ and Gesche Gottfried (Suzan Anbeh) is a prime suspect. A confession must be witnessed to be legal, and Cato’s developing relationship with Gottfried puts the younger woman centre stage as the authorities seek to create the circumstances which would allow them to administer justice in the form of the death penalty.
Knowing that the events depicted here are based on a true-life murder-spree marks our cards somewhat as to what’s about to happen, but Effigy: Poison and the City takes a number of diversions, not least when a rain of blood falls on the city just at the moment that some corpses are exhumed. Such Gothic touches encourage thoughts of a super-natural twist, but Flohr’s film sticks rigidly to the everyday, and captures Cato’s rise to prominence in the foreground, and the murder enquiry firmly as the background to the narrative.
Fans of The Alienist or Hannibal Lecter need not apply, but admirers of studied costume drama should; this is a restrained, almost meditative work which is well-acted and mounted with skill on real life-locations. I recently had the opportunity to visit Lubeck, mentioned in the narrative as a city with similar qualities, and found it to be remarkably unchanged from the 1800’s, and Bremen’s well-preserved quality adds to the production values here. Effigy: Poison and the City may frustrate those looking for cheap thrills, but it’s a stimulating and rare outing into a period of history that’s rarely examined. Flohr deserves credit for tacking issues like anti-Semitism here, as well as feminism, and the final confession scene is gripping stuff. Audiences self-select for a film of this difficulty, but if you’ve been curious enough to read this far, you’ll enjoy Effigy: Poison in the City.
This film is scheduled for US release from Dec 18th 2020 in theatres/online via Laemmle virtual cinemas, who have been curating indie and foreign films to provide cinema at home during the lockdown. Thanks to Project Lodestar for advanced access. Links below.