Nothing Bad Can Happen (2013)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

So pervasive is the happy clappy vibe and summer holiday mood with which Nothing Bad Can Happen begins that you might be forgiven for imagining, despite the ominous martial notes of Peter Folk’s percussive score, that you are about to witness a breezy Rohmer-style comedy of manners rather than a dramatisation of the eternal struggle between good and evil. Indeed, you might even initially be lulled into taking at face value the reassuring sound of the film’s English title (originally it was Tore Tanzt, or ‘Tore Dances’) – although by the end, many, many bad things have happened in the sunny suburbs, and social satire has given way to a kind of spiritual horror. For, like Jesus of Montreal (1989) transferred to the outskirts of Hamburg, Katrin Gebbe’s challenging debut reorients the temptation and passion of Jesus to the environs of contemporary life and to the idioms of handheld naturalism, all in aid of questioning whether there can be a place in the modern world for unerring faith and saintly submission to the unconscionable.

“I’ll take care of your garden,” promises Tore (Julius Feldmeier). Bleach-blonde, wide-eyed, smiling, impoverished and virginal, this enthusiastic newcomer to a sect known as the Jesus Freaks takes very seriously his cult’s credo that we must live our lives today in the manner of Christ: spurn material things, reject sex outside of marriage, trust in God, and always turn the other cheek – especially in the face of evil. When Tore uses the power of prayer to help start a stalled pickup truck at a rest stop, this minor miracle leads the vehicle’s owner Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), a dealer in blackmarket goods, to invite the epileptic zealot back to his home on an allotment.

Provided with food, a bed, and a family, Tore believes – at least at first – that God has gifted him with a new paradisiacal garden on Earth. Yet every Eden comes with its snake, and Benno, with his petty jealousies, his bullying aggressions and his aberrant desires, spreads his corrupting, seductive evil through his family and beyond. As even his fellow Jesus Freaks drift apart under the pressures of worldly life, Tore finds himself in an increasingly impossible ordeal – isolated, abused, and armed only with his faith, with the soul of Benno’s fifteen-year-old stepdaughter Sanny (Swantje Kolhof) at stake.

Much of what makes Gebbe’s film so uncompromising and confonting is her refusal to do the moral work for us. As Tore is repeatedly enjoined – by Sanny and even by Benno himself – to retaliate in kind against Benno’s violence, we are made to work through our own feelings about Tore’s New Testament response to Old Testament trials, and to wonder whether he is right or wrong  to bend over so meekly and take whatever new mistreatment is coming. Unwilling to forcefeed us  solutions to these ethical conundrums, Gebbe instead leaves everything open, and has faith that we can answer for ourselves the last question that Sanny addresses to Tore – a question that comes with both Biblical and moral resonances: “But you’re coming back?” Nothing Bad Can Happen is a bleak, harrowing parable for a secular age, told in a disarmingly plain style.

Anton Bitel