Movie Reviews
3:03 pm
Thu June 26, 2014

Brutality And Faith Tangle In A Young Man's Story

Tore (Julius Feldmeier), Nothing Bad Can Happen's young, born-again Christian protagonist, wears his faith like a security blanket. "Your belief is based on fear," says Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), his surrogate father later turned tormentor, and Tore certainly uses his Christianity — which he preaches to the world through his membership in a youth group called the Jesus Freaks — as both assurance that good will ultimate prevail in the world and as a tool with which to avoid the more uncomfortable elements of adolescence, namely girls.

The film's title and Tore's final line in its prologue — "What can man do to me?"— both immediately suggest that German writer-director Katrin Gebbe is keen to dampen that optimism and puncture that sense of safety. Nothing Bad Can Happen begins with Tore's baptism and his behavior afterward suggests the effects of this recent conversion: he's eager to find worldly proof for his beliefs and to shout his faith to the world. And so when he and his friend come upon Benno's family stuck in a parking lot with a car that won't start, they lay their heads down on the hood and ask Jesus to revive the stalled engine. In this instance, the heavens do their part. Shortly after, Benno and Tore meet again when Benno shows up at a concert organized by the Jesus Freaks and saves the epileptic Tore when he starts having a seizure in the middle of a mosh pit.

By this point, Gebbe has given us little information about Tore's life before his Christian rebirth. That he's an orphan or irreparably distanced from his family is as much as she suggests, and either is presumably the reason that Tore quickly grows attached to Benno and his family after staying the night with them. Eventually he moves in, sleeping in a tent in their backyard and slowly developing a crush on Benno's stepdaughter, Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof).

Nothing Bad Can Happen is split into three chapters subtitled Faith, Love, and Hope, the same names that Ulrich Seidl gave to the films in his 2012-13 Paradise trilogy. Much like those movies, Nothing Bad Can Happen pits religious belief against humanity's most vicious behavior in a test of not only of religion's merits but also of its practitioners' commitment. Benno subjects Tore to escalating acts of torture, starting with a quick punch to the face, and leading to a forced feeding of rotten meat and beyond.

But Nothing Bad Can Happen never engages with doubt like Seidl's films do, and that hampers its ability to truly question or even compellingly portray the religious life. As perpetrators, Benno and his family's motives are entirely opaque — like Tore they receive no backstory, no context. All that we can ascertain is their steadfast commitment to brutality. Tore, meanwhile, questions his beliefs briefly in an uninspired scene where he pleads to the sky, "please talk to me again." Otherwise he is as resolute as Benno, making Nothing Bad Can Happen not a battle about worldviews or faith but a no-holds-barred spectacle in which the single open question is whether Benno's sadism can outmatch Tore's willpower.

Nothing Bad Can Happen is shot in a roving, jittery, handheld style that will be familiar from many indie American films. It's the kind of cinematography in which the camera behaves somewhat like a lapdog, following Tore at a distance and pushing in close to him in difficult moments, almost as if to console him. But under the helm of Gebbe, cinematographer Moritz Schultheiß, and editor Heike Gnida, that same style of camerawork and editing turns scenes of confrontation into poorly choreographed dances, the camera becoming a clumsily placed obstacle rather than an observer.

Those moments reflect a more overarching concern. Gebbe never puts a signature stamp on his work. The film lacks a unique style and, worse, a coherent purpose. Its world is so remote, its characters behavior so unexplained — despite the fact that the film is based on true events — that our connection to the story slackens significantly over time.

The level of violence, meanwhile, increases in equal proportion. At the beginning of the film, the Jesus Freaks pledge their allegiance to a radical interpretation of turning the other cheek. They declare their willingness to resist retribution even if it means dying under other people's cruelty. It's an extreme profession of faith that the film ultimately requires equally from its audience. Tore's ordeal mirrors Jesus's selfless suffering, sometimes too conspicuously so, such as when, as Sanny watches a bloodied, near-death Tore leaving the house, she asks: "But you're coming back?" More problematic is that, as an example of Christian sacrifice, Tore's story symbolizes little and offers few rewards, earthly or otherwise, for the viewer who keeps the faith and watches until the end.

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