Effigy: Poison and the City
Stars: Elisa Thiemann, Suzan Ambeh, Christoph Gottshalch, Roland Jankowsky, Ume Bohm, Marc Ottiker and Nicola Nelissan
Director: Udo Flohr
Scriptwriters: Udo Flohr, Peer Meter and Antonio Roeller from Peer Meter’s stage play “Die Verhöre der Gesche Gottfried”
Composer: Nic Raine
Cinematography: Thomas Kist
Running Length: One hour and 25 Minutes
German language: Subtitles
The German translation for the word “effigy” means “not the real thing.” In Udo Flohr’s film, “Effigy,” it takes time to figure out just who is this person and what they represent. This is Germany in 1820. There are two main characters here, both women. One is a law clerk, unusual for that time, and she has privilege in an area dominated by men. Portrayed by Elisa Thiemann, “Cato,” is intelligent, inquisitive and eager to learn what goes on behind the scenes in a criminal investigation. The other woman is “Gesche”, and vividly portrayed by Suzan Anbeh. Gesche comes under suspicion of murder and then the who-dunnit begins.
The time is Bremen, Germany, in the early 1800’s. The city is active in establishing a railroad there with the purchase of land and for enlarging the sea port. As the film begins, a man comes to the authorities and says he thinks his wife, Gesche, is poisoning him. There is a slight powder on the food and he is suspicious. The food is tested and the powder is arsenic. A law clerk, Cato, dressed in proper black and white clothing and hair in a bun, becomes interested in this case and discovered that arsenic, loosely known as “mouse butter,” is openly sold in stores and used for getting rid of mice. The idea of having arsenic so readily available surprises even Cato, as she investigates where this purchase could have been made. How easy to have the jars confused with other spices in a store. It could accidently have been mixed with other spices in a household, too. While the local authorities decide to have the food tested for poison, the wife is questioned and has a reasonable explanation. Then she thinks she is being targeted by someone, a former maid? An acquaintance? The authorities take her as a “protected witness” to keep her from harm. . Gesche, who has long blonde hair and wears revealing clothing, is the opposite of Cato. The authorities begin to unfold a series of deaths going back years and all had some connection with Gesche. Eventually, it is decided to exhume some of the bodies to find out if they died from natural causes. Was Gesche the poisoner or someone else? She is a beautiful woman, perhaps a jealous man or woman? On the day the bodies were exhumed, it rains blood*. Another angle to approach—is Gesche bewitched?
As the narrative unfolds, the musical score, which is composed and conducted by Nic Raine and performed by The City of Prague’s Philharmonic Orchestra, is effective in creating an atmospheric tension which is haunting and chilling. What, also, aids in the effectiveness of the film is the authenticity of surroundings. Plain furniture, wood floors, natural lighting and the study of the women’s faces. Cato is grim and determined, while Gesche smiles and is enjoying herself. What they have in common is that each goes up against the place of men in this society. Cato is intelligent but had to fight to keep her job as a law clerk, when she clearly can outthink her boss. Gesche has to marry to find a place for herself and doesn’t have the education of the law clerk. Both women have to obey men.
I liked the leisurely pace of the film and how the law clerk does much of the investigating while her boss is elsewhere, which is like some offices in today’s world. Many threads to follow to find the killer, and which one is it? A cat and mouse game with arsenic as the toy. Makes you want to study your food before eating it. This is not a late Saturday evening television horror film, but rather, a study of a real serial killer in 1820. No psychologists available, either, to pull the threads together. Suzan Anbeh’s “Gesche” holds you with her eyes that are full of mystery. Elisa Thiemann’s eyes have a straight forward gaze, and would look at her writing, rather than a direct look at you. The rest of the cast does well, but this is a two-woman show. Don’t miss the ending.
*The “rain of blood” (actually red sand granules) happened in Bremen and was due to an extremely rare occurrence coming from the Sahara Desert of all places. This was wind currents and soil erosion. Extraordinary that it should happen on the day of the exhumations in 1820 Germany.
Copyright 2020 Marie Asner