A surreal period drama inspired by real events, Udo Flohr’s “Effigy — Poison and the City” dramatizes the multiple deaths surrounding a beautiful widow in 1820s Bremen, Germany.
Wordy and stilted (it was derived from a stage play), this low-budget debut nevertheless benefits from a mesmerizing central performance by Suzan Anbeh as the real-life serial killer, Gesche Gottfried. (None other than Rainer Werner Fassbinder made a film about her in 1972.) Known locally as “The Angel of Bremen,” she feeds the poor and comforts the dying. But when Gesche is suspected of several poisonings, Senator Droste (Christoph Gottschalch) and his whip-smart, pioneering law clerk, Cato Böhmer (an excellent Elisa Thiemann), must investigate.
A calm, almost serene surface belies a plot crammed with tensions: between stasis and progress, madness and sanity, the advancement of women and the misogyny that restrains them. Bremen, a port city, is threatened by the arrival of the railroads, an innovation championed by Droste and opposed by the mayor and business leaders. Politics bleed into the homicide inquiry as the alluring Gesche, who claims that a seductive voice told her to kill, distracts Droste from the skulduggery of his enemies.
“The female’s fragile mind requires guidance from a man,” a pastor opines. Yet it’s the minds of men who are most addled by Gesche’s wiles and casually exposed décolletage: Cato sees through her flirting prevarications immediately. In the killer’s sly manipulation of her interrogators’ gender prejudices, juxtaposed with Cato’s perceptiveness, “Effigy” finds its clearest voice. So when, near the end, sand from the Sahara is blown over the city, the resulting crimson shower of “blood rain” seems a harbinger of changes to come.
Effigy — Poison and the City
Not rated. In German and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. Watch through Laemmle Virtual Cinema.