The original German title of Nothing Bad Can Happen is Tore Tanzt, or “Tore Dances.” Anyone who watches the trailer for the film will recognize that the new title is meant as bitterly ironic. This is a story about many, many bad things happening. But while Tore Tantz is a more obtuse title, and one that’s perhaps too alienating for an international release, it’s actually even richer in irony than Nothing Bad Can Happen. The namesake character dances often throughout the film – for himself, for his friends, for God – and increasingly his actions feel like those of a chained animal on the threatening end of a switch. This is extreme cinema with much of the extremity left to the imagination, in the emotional realm rather than the physical. Supposedly based on a true story, it’s a horror film in which our darkest proclivities are the monster.
Tore (Julius Feldmeier) is a young homeless Hamburg denizen who’s taken up with the Jesus Freaks, a group of “punk” Christians whose worship services look more like raves. Tore is an innocent, a sweetheart hungering for a purpose. He thinks that the Holy Spirit sometimes speaks to him during his epileptic fits. Coming back from the beach with his friends after his baptism, Tore encounters Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), whose stalled car he seemingly restarts with faith alone. This unusual miracle leads Tore to believe that his higher purpose is tied to Benno, and he ends up moving in with Benno and his family.
Tore sleeps in a tent in the backyard, performs odd chores around the house, and grows close to Benno’s stepdaughter, Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof). At first all is well, but Benno gradually unveils a nasty side. He’s confounded by Tore’s faith and meek nature, and is envious of his relationship with Sanny. This bitterness manifests at first in violence, sporadic and seemingly impulsive. But over time, it turns into systematic, gross neglect. He could run away, but Tore has nowhere else to go (the Jesus Freaks have vacated the building they were squatting in) and he wants to protect Sanny from Benno. So he decides that this is a test of his faith, and as the abuse intensifies in severity and twisted creativity, Tore keeps turning the other cheek.
Nothing Bad Can Happen is strongly reminiscent of Breaking the Waves, another realist tale of religious suffering. Both films feature childlike protagonists enduring harsh tribulations for the sake of another. In Waves, Bess subjects herself to sexual behavior she finds repulsive because she believes that each act is a sacrifice that restores a little bit more of her crippled husband’s health. In Nothing Bad, Tore becomes a scapegoat in the original sense of the term, offered up as a sacrifice through which Sanny can be saved. He hopes that his torment will give her the courage she needs to take her younger brother and leave her terrible family.
It’s interesting that this aspect, which I thought was obvious, has been left out every review of the film that I’ve read. Every critic has focused on the violence and horror, but identify the point as being something about needless religious self-persecution. Disturbingly, this piece even claims that the movie is about “the need to dissociate and blame rather than accept our own complicity in situations of domestic violence,” which is gross victim-blaming. It seems difficult for some to get past the movie’s content and understand its parable. Believers and nonbelievers alike can feel validated by this story, because whether or not Tore’s faith is well-placed, it serves the purpose he needs, giving his life meaning and hope.
Of course, it’s understandable that the content would be hard to overlook. In one scene, Benno and his wife Astrid (Annika Kuhl) catch Tore trying to snatch food from the trash (they’ve been trying to starve him), so they force him to eat a whole rancid, maggot-infested chicken. Other times the abuse is less explicit but upsetting in a queasier, subtle way, like when Benno forces Tore to strip and sprays him with a hose because “he stinks.” The “torture porn” label has been tossed at this movie, but it doesn’t assault the senses so much as instill a slow-burn revulsion in the viewer.
Feldmeier and Gersak are the proverbial immovable object and unstoppable force, Christ and His torturer. Feldmeier is playing a character who possesses the nigh-unreal conviction of a true believer, mixed with heartbreakingly human doubts and anguish. Gersak is terrifying not because he is a monster but because he is a man. Benno feels not too far removed from the average schmo, the friendly facade only slipping on occasion. He’s testosteronic id, living to take what and who he wants, and unable to understand selflessness. Kohlhof is also great as Sanny, not a damsel for Tore to save but a very real-feeling picture of someone trapped in an abusive household.
The film’s realistic tone sometimes clashes with its content. After a while, Tore’s continued compliance with Benno’s cruelty feels too extraordinary. A seemingly nice couple joins in the violence on the spur of a moment. The movie ends with a title card that claims it’s “based on a true events,” but that feels more like an excuse to blanket the illogical than a statement on real human evil. Is the true story as ridiculous as the film? I’ve been unable to find the article that inspired writer/director Katrin Gebbe, but we already know that she took liberties, as necessitated by film as an art form. Even if it rigidly conforms to the true events, as Compliance claims to, the film still has to make sense on its own. It doesn’t.
Unlike Breaking the Waves, Nothing Bad Can Happen doesn’t end with joyous bells ringing. There is little consolation for the horrible things the audience has seen. The film is divided into three chapters, named after the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. The movie picks apart these religious ideals by putting them to the harshest of tests. Love is supposed to be the greatest of the virtues, but the movie’s final chapter is “Hope.” Darkness makes hope seem more acute, and so Nothing Bad Can Happen is hopeful in the end. Suffering is a matter of perception, and since Tore is steadfast in his faith, perhaps neither title is truly ironic after all.