Effigy's German Serial Killer Drama Weaves Intoxicating—and Toxic—Tale

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Effigy: Poison and The City. Available now on Laemmle Virtual Cinema.

In German director Fritz Lang's creepy 1931 classic M, suspected serial-child killer (except he's played by Peter Lorre, so you know he's guilty) Hans Beckert is facing "trial" before a panel of street criminals who intend to execute him. "I cannot help myself!" he protests. "I have no control over this evil thing that is inside me—the fire, the voices, the torment!"

Surely Gesche Gottfried, the arsenic epicurean in Effigy: Poison and The City, is a spiritual descendent of Beckert. Imprisoned on charges of poisoning practically everybody she ever met—her husbands, parents, children ("That motherhood thing is overrated," she explains to one investigator), neighbors, even a couple of visitors to her jail cell—she listens with rapt attention as the prison chaplain recounts the Biblical tale of Abraham, preparing to sacrifice his own son on orders from God. "Was he enjoying that?" she breathily inquires of the priest.

The odd, unnerving little Effigy—like M, both set and made in Germany—has been kicking around film festivals around the world for more than a year, winning a lot of awards but never an American theatrical release or television showing, until its debut today on the streaming service Laemmle Virtual Cinema. Made by a team of rookies—its director and three screenwriters have one previous feature film on their collective resume—it's an eccentric yet intriguing mix of murder, psychopathy, weird feminism and primitive police procedural.

Set in 1828 in the German port city of Bremen, Effigy follows the investigation of Gottfried, a real-life serial killer who would eventually be decapitated after conviction for 15 murders. (Townspeople still spit on the spot on the ground where her severed head stopped rolling.) If it seems that suspicions might reasonably have been aroused after the first five or six—well, there were reasons for Bremen authorities to have doubted they had a serial killer on their hands.

Gottfried was famously sweet to her family—even nursing on his deathbed a notoriously unfaithful husband who (it was whispered) had contracted a terminal case of syphilis. She was kind to her less fortunate neighbors, feeding them meals during hard times. And who could be so unkind as to summon for official questioning such a pretty (and flirtatious!) woman whose life had been such a magnet for misfortune?

This all changes the moment a new investigator enters the scene. Cato Böhmer is smart and experienced in the relatively new science of forensic medicine, making use of autopsies and tissue tests at a time when most murders are solved through confessions. But the most formidable weapon at Bohmer's command is gender: The lone woman in a pack of prosecutors and police, she is immune from Gottfried's coquetry and unimpressed with stereotypical ideas about the innate nurturing qualities of mothers and wives. Neither does she buy the idea that no mere woman could plan and carry out a string of murders without help—that "the female's fragile mind requires guidance from a man," an argument that had been used to hobble Böhmer's own career.

Using lab work to prove that the trail of death following Gottfried is the result not of cholera or typhoid fever, as many of the cops believe, but arsenic poisoning, Böhmer quickly builds a strong circumstantial case against her quarry. Even so, her male superiors are troubled by the lack of apparent motive, reluctant to argue in court that Gottfried launched a murder spree without "rhyme or reason, as if she were in some kind of frenzy," as one of them puts it.

But Gottfried is clever, too. Taunting and teasing the authorities—particularly by admitting her guilt to them one at a time, knowing that German law of the day made confessions admissible only when heard by two witnesses—she spreads division in their ranks. Political corruption (Bremen is in the midst of controversy whether it should continue funding port operations or switch to support of a new transportation technology, the railroad) further muddles the picture.

What really makes Effigy work is the outstanding job by its two leading actresses, neither of them well known in the United States. Elisa Thiemann is a marvel of prim restraint as Cato Böhmer, who endures grating abuse from both sides of the law as she dreams of America where, she's heard, a woman can go to law school. And Suzan Anbeh (who had a small role 15 years ago in the Lawrence Kasdan caper-comedy French Kiss) exudes so much good will and tempting sexuality as Gottfried that you cannot help but wonder if she could really be a murderer, no matter what you just saw with your own eyes.