Editor’s note: Our review of Nothing Bad Can Happen originally ran during this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but we’re re-running it here as it plays Fantastic Fest.
One of the most loudly-jeered though curiously little-discussed films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was first-time director Katrin Gebbe‘s Nothing Bad Can Happen, the single German film playing at 2013’s fest. For sure, it’s controversial material, guaranteed to divide audiences on whether or not it is in fact a criticism of religious sectarianism or merely a depiction of humanity’s dark heart.
Tore (Julius Feldmeier) is a young man who has fallen in with so-called Jesus Freaks, a punk Christian sect basing themselves out of a house in Hamburg. Though an awkwardly unassuming sort, Tore one day makes acquaintance with an affable family man, Benno (Sascha Gersak), and decides to move into his home, where he meets and forges a connection with Benno’s young daughter Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof). However, this bond is tested once Tore discovers the sinister nature of this family unit; Benno’s dislike for Tore’s fastidious religious beliefs notwithstanding, the patriarch is an abusive sexual deviant with a short, violent temper.
Gebbe’s debut is nothing if not wholly confident and entirely committed to its narrative focus, which goes a way to explain its contentious reception at Cannes. It goes without saying that the ironically-titled film pulls few punches, and has no qualms about taking the nature of its conflict to its brutal, deeply unsettling conclusion, which will simply be too much for more squeamish viewers. Though the product may veer a little too close to misery, even torture porn for some, Gebbe’s film has a hauntingly compelling point to make about the nature of religious commitment, and the potential result of turning one’s cheek too many times.
Moodily shot by DP Moritz Schultheiss and ominously scored by Peter Falk, Johannes Lehninger, there’s a creepy tone to the film from the outset that permeates right through to the final, disturbing image. If audiences aren’t unsettled by Benno’s increasingly perverse behaviour throughout the picture (they will be), then the uneasy questions the film asks about religious devotion will surely unnerve in an entirely different way. As Tore increasingly catches the brunt of Benno’s abuse yet refuses to fight back, we’re asked to consider – has Tore been brainwashed to the point of inertia, or is his unwavering faith something to admire?
That said, the film is not a complete dirge from start to finish; the bonding between Tore and Sanny is believable thanks to the nervous chemistry shared by the young actors. That this never transpires through to cheap titillation or exploitation is to the film’s credit, for Gebbe instead saves the latter for some of the film’s abuse scenes, which range from Benno feeding characters spoiled chicken to flat-out sexually assaulting them. Compounding this is a battery of psychological abuse that, combined with the central character’s established demeanor, makes the final act as inevitable as it is tragically, wrenchingly pointless.
A comment from Tore mid-film proves most telling of all, as he declares, “If I didn’t believe, I’d have nothing,” a statement that at once implies the dichotomously freeing and constricting nature of religious belief. Tore would have total hopelessness without it, but it is also the dogma that binds him to become subject to abuse, free of defending himself. Therefore, it is easy to see how the religious devout – perhaps many of whom booed the film at its festival screening – would take umbrage with its subtle-as-a-sledgehammer assertion, even if the film boasts merits far in excess of being a simple bible-bashing exercise.
Though the visuals are somber often to the point of murkiness, on the whole this is a well-composed, unapologetically intense film shot through with an especially brave performance from impressive young lead Feldmeier. It is cinema of the angriest kind from a hungry new filmmaker keen to provoke.
The Upside: Venom-filled, provocative filmmaking that’s impressively shot for a first feature and packed with compelling performances.
The Downside: Its sheer nature is sure to rub many viewers up the wrong way, and it is unpleasant (almost) from stem to stern.
On the Side: The film is reportedly based on true events.