Gesche Gottfried was one of Germany’s most notorious (and successful) female serial killers. She poisoned at least fifteen people between 1813 and 1827—including members of her own family, multiple friends, acquaintances, and neighbors—before a would-be victim became suspicious of white flakes on his food and contacted his physician. Her story has been treated of in literature, graphic novels, and even a television movie. It’s now the focusof Udo Flohr’s nightmarish work Effigy: Poison and the City, which deals with the exposure of Gottfried’s crimes and the investigation that eventually leads to her arrest and execution.
Effigy opens with Senator Droste (Christoph Gottschalch) opening an investigation when Dr. Luce (Eugen-Daniel Krobner) brings him a side of bacon suspiciously covered in white flakes. Droste discovers that something odd is happening at the Rumpf household in Bremen, as both inhabitants and neighbors are growing ill and even dying, tended by the kindly widow Gottfried (Suzan Anbeh), the “Angel of Bremen.” With the help of his new law clerk, Cato Bohmer (Elisa Thiemann), Droste looks into the illnesses, eventually leading to the discovery of Gottfried as a multiple murderer without apparent motive.
Effigy elucidates an odd, disturbing period in history, in the beginning of forensic investigation and psychological analysis. As it becomes clearer that Gottfried is behind multiple deaths, the prosecutors find themselves in a conundrum—she has no motive, and in fact many of the victims are people with whom she was on good terms. Anbeh’s interpretation of Gottfried is both pathetic and terrifying—she manipulates the legal system by confessing to single people, without any witnesses, presents herself as a victim, and plagues the prosecutors with layers of false stories, to the point that it’s difficult to tell what’s the truth, what’s a lie, and what she actually believes. Drosche mentions “murderous monomania,” that she may not be responsible for her actions, while the clergy and other legal minds simply want Gottfried executed.
The complexity of the psychological history provides Effigy with some of its tensest scenes, especially between Gottfried and Cato, as both women face a male-dominated society requiring them to be either waifs or monsters. Gottfried, in fact, escapes detection for so long by acting as a loving nurse and slightly flirtatious widow, appealing to men’s desire to protect her. But the films summons a great deal of sympathy for her without making her into an anti-hero, and creates tension even if one knows how this will all, eventually, play out. As the net closes around her, she shifts between openly admitting, even celebrating, her crimes, and being horrified by them, claiming at once to be innocent and then again that she simply had to do it. Some later psychological theories propose that Gottfried was a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, as she acted as both nurse and poisoner of many of her victims. But the film, to its credit, does not attempt to fully analyze Gottfried’s psychosis—it is bound up in her individuality, in her experience as a woman, in her culture and society.
There are some wobbles along the way. The opening proves somewhat difficult to follow, as it’s not clear what role Gottfried occupies in the Rumpf household (her husband owned the house but she’s now a tenant in it?), and there are smaller plot strands that don’t contribute much to the overarching narrative. This is exacerbated by an unnecessary voiceover by Cato that attempts to explain the legal process in Germany in the 1820s. While this provides some framework for understanding what happens to Gottfried—there’s no trial by jury, but an investigation of the circumstances by the prosecutors which are then presented to a judge—most of the information can be gleaned from the story itself without the need for Cato to explain it. The tale told through the eyes of a woman in the legal profession, however, means that the film permits for more sympathy, and even more affinity, between Gottfried and Cato than if this was solely the story of a female murdered pursued by male authority figures.
Sparse, intense, and nightmarish in its depiction of a bizarre psychosis, Effigy: Poison and the City is a fascinating narrative. It also raises the question as to why we don’t have more movies about early female serial killers. La Voisin, a professional fortune teller, chemist, and purveyor of “black magic” to the upper classes in seventeenth century France, is arguably the most successful serial killer of all time (she may have been responsible for upwards of 2500 deaths). She’s just begging for extensive cinematic treatment, as is Lavinia Fisher and Amelia Winters. We’ve had plenty of tales of Jack the Ripper—let’s give the ladies a chance.