Effigy: Poison and the City (2024)

Director: Udo Flohr

Cast: Susan Anbeh, Elisa Thiemann, Christoph Gottschalch

Running time: 84 mins 

Based on real-life court records and inspired by co-writer Peer Meter’s stage play, Effigy: Poison and the City is a German true-crime drama that details a series of poisonings in Bremen. The performances are strong and the production design will please fans of period drama, but the central story feels a little flat. 

Set in 1828, the film takes place in Bremen, where 27 year old Cato Böhmer (Elisa Thiemann) is beginning work as a law clerk for Senator Droste (Christoph Gottschalch). She’s immediately thrown in at the deep end, because a series of poisonings have occurred in the city, and Mayor Johann Schmidt (Ulrich Sachsse) is anxious to find the culprit, not least because he has an imminent railroad project to worry about. 

A prime suspect quickly emerges, in the shape of Gesche Gottfried (Suzan Anbeh), a wealthy and respected member of society, who has lost multiple family members (including three husbands) to mysterious deaths. It’s abundantly clear that Gottfried is guilty (she even manages a couple of poisonings whilst under arrest), but without corroborating witnesses, Cato and Droste face an uphill struggle in securing a conviction. 

The most interesting element of the script is that terms like “serial killer” and “sociopath” didn’t yet exist in 1828 – instead, someone recalls a case elsewhere in Germany involving “a murderous monomania” and suggests this could be a similar thing. To that end, it’s intriguing to watch Cato and Droste figure out what’s actually going on, as Gottfried’s insanity gradually reveals itself. 

Anbeh is terrific as Gottfried, particularly during her initial arrest when she effortlessly charms her captors, who are then immediately convinced of her innocence. She also generates tantalising chemistry with Thiemann’s character, though the script clearly views that as a step too far and doesn’t see it through to its logical conclusion.

Thiemann (whose character also narrates) is equally good, battling both Gottfried’s deviousness and the dismissive sexism in her chosen profession. Similarly, there’s strong support from Gottschalch as Droste, and the bond of trust and respect that forms between them is the film’s strongest emotional element, all the more so for being understated. 

The main problem is that the film frequently squanders its considerable potential. The set-up lends itself to a gripping cat-and-mouse style thriller, with fascinating political and socio-economic undertones, but the execution of the story feels frustratingly dry throughout. It would have been interesting, for example, to have Cato as the only member of the team who’s immune to Gottfried’s seductive charm, but the script steers away from that idea, despite the considerable chemistry between Thiemann and Anbeh in their first scene together. 

That said, the film remains worth seeing thanks to the central performances, the chilling nature of the true story and a small handful of great scenes. It also has a terrific final shot, if you like that sort of thing.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Read more reviews at Action Reloaded.

Author

  • Matthew Turner

    A lifelong film fanatic, Matthew Turner (FilmFan1971) is a London-based critic and author, as well as the co-host of Fatal Attractions, a podcast on erotic thrillers. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.