It isn’t any surprise that in first-time director Katrin Gebbe’s Nothing Bad Can Happen, anything bad that can happen, will. The film is a kind of endurance test, asking the viewer to witness a progressively more disturbing and more bleak cinematic world, all while dangling the hope that we will come out on the other side, somehow rewarded for having done so. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case.
The movie opens with a baptism, a cleansing ahead of the horror that’s to come. Tore (Julius Feldmeier) is an impressionable young man who becomes born-again after joining up with a hardcore punk Christian group who call themselves Jesus Freaks. With a kind of wide-eyed innocence and unbending faith, Tore clings desperately to his faith in God – without it, he says, he would have nothing. But after a falling out with one of the fellow Jesus Freaks he was crashing with, Tore finds a new family. Benno (Sascha Gersak), a man on whose dead car battery Tore seemingly performed a miracle earlier in the film, invites the young man to live with him, his wife Astrid (Annika Kuhl), and two stepchildren. Drawn to the close-knit unit, especially teenaged stepdaughter Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof), Tore accepts the offer, bonding with the family despite their having no belief in God.
Things go well for a while but the movie, of course, must take a turn. Benno’s darker side slowly begins to emerge as he becomes increasingly frustrated with Tore’s faith, which he views as a kind of weakness. His short temper gives way to sadistic moments of violence, mental manipulation, and horrifying sexual abuse – all shot with a nervous, shaky camera that mimics the viewer’s own desire but inability to look away. Through it all, Tore is unbendingly resolute in his faith in God, even as Benno finds new cruel and unusual ways to break him. He is eerily calm and accepting of the abuse, practicing the principle of always turning the other cheek and consistently returning to the fray, even when granted several opportunities to flee Benno’s household.
It’s clear what Gebbe is getting at. The themes of good versus evil and faith versus non-belief are at times heavy handed and inelegantly introduced. There are overtly pronounced parallels between Tore’s suffering and sacrifice and that of Christ himself; in one scene, Tore lays with arms splayed out to the sides, bloody, recalling images of a crucified Jesus on the cross. But while well-acted and interestingly shot, the conflict is far too black-and-white. Perhaps this is because very little context is presented – aside from the fact that he is an orphan, we know little about Tore’s background, or his life before becoming a Christian. His motivations and willingness to endure his abuse, beyond his friendship with Sanny and faith in God, are never fully explored. He has one brief moment of doubt, but even that is frustratingly glossed over. Meanwhile, Benno and his wife are the equivalent of moustache-twirling villains, pure embodiments of evil with very little complexity that only serve as tools for torture.
And yet, for all its one-dimensional explorations of humanity’s ability to give and receive pain, it must be said that there is something engaging about Nothing Bad Can Happen, in spite of itself. The innocent but intense connection between Tore and Sanny goes a long way, providing brief glimmers of hope in an overall narrative that seeks to torture its protagonist. Ultimately, this is a film that asks deep questions but offers somewhat shallow answers. Its value lies most in its keen ability to generate heightened emotions of empathy, anger, disgust, but its final, bleak resolution is frustratingly anticlimactic.