Nothing_Bad_Can_Happen_poster

Germany 2013 (billed as Tore Tanzt)

Director: Katrin Gebbe

Screenplay: Katrin Gebbe

110 minutes

This extraordinary feature film debut by director Katrin Gebbe is one of the most uncompromising examinations of evil that I have ever seen. In fact, “evil”  may not even be the right word to use here, because it is a word that tends to be used as an explanation in its own right, a word that pathologises individuals and prevents us from considering the social contexts within which disturbing behaviour can arise. By contrast, Nothing Bad Can Happen – whilst not providing the audience with any pat answers – places a particular set of events under a spotlight and forces us to consider some difficult questions.

The story begins with a group of Jesus Freaks, young people who blend Christianity and punk rock. Among them is Tore (Julius Feldmeier), whose blond locks and blue eyes imbue him with a truly angelic appearance. Whilst driving home from Tore’s baptism, the Jesus Freaks encounter Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), whose pickup truck won’t start. They gather round and pray over the bonnet of his vehicle, after which the engine kicks into life. Benno asks about their group and later turns up at one of their punk gatherings, where he witnesses Tore having an epileptic seizure. He takes Tore to his family’s summer dwelling, a small shack on an allotment. Tore is invited to stay with the family – consisting of Benno’s partner Astrid (Annika Kuhl) and her two children from a previous relationship, Dennis (Til-Niklas Theinert) and Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof). As there is not enough room in the wooden hut, Tore sleeps in a tent.

Although he is gently questioning of Tore’s Christianity, suggesting that religion is for those who cannot handle responsibility for their own lives, Benno is initially charming. But little by little a darker side is revealed. At a barbecue, Benno jokingly jabs a pair of tongs towards Tore’s face. During a gathering for Sanny’s fifteenth birthday, Benno punches Tore,  but then apologises for what he says is uncharacteristic behaviour. However, Benno’s abuse then becomes even more serious.

Throughout it all, Tore shows no inclination to leave of his own accord nor to fight back (earlier in the film one of the other Jesus Freaks makes a speech about turning the other cheek). He interprets his situation as a test set by God, although later – after a spell in hospital – he feels that God has abandoned him. Should we admire Tore’s religiosity or is he hopelessly naive? Are Benno, Astrid, and the children the closest thing that Tore has to a real family, or is he simply unable to take responsibility for his own life, as Benno originally suggested? But whatever we think about Tore, the treatment he receives is truly awful.

Water appears recurrently at significant moments in the film. Tore is baptised in the sea; there is a near-sexual encounter in a swimming pool; an episode of animal abuse involves water; and at one point Tom – filthy and stinking – is hosed down by Benno, only Sanny takes the hose and makes a game of it. At various points the music (by Johannes Lehniger and Peter Folk) rumbles and gurgles, like a large object sinking into deep water.

**SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS**

Disturbingly, Astrid goes from being a mere observer of Tore’s suffering to being actively complicit in its cause. She and Benno occasionally appear surprised, appalled even, by their own behaviour, but then go on to perpetrate worse. Likewise, Dieter and Cora (Uwe Dag Berlin and Nadine Boske) are occasional visitors who begin by expressing concern for Tore, but end up also participating in his suffering.  I’m sure I could not have been the only audience member thinking of real-life cases such as Fred and Rosemary West (and, in fact, Nothing Bad Can Happen is based on true events in Germany). But moreover, watching ordinary people  become involved in horrific events brings to mind the rise of the Nazis, not to mention more recent events such as Abu-Ghraib.

At the end of the film Tore is badly beaten and mutilated, and Benno, Astrid, Dieter and Cora wrap him in a blanket and drive him out to the country. Here, Benno drops the blood-soaked young man in a copse. Benno asks him where his God is now, to which Tore raises a hand to his chest and whispers “Here”. Apparently unable to cope with this demonstration of faith, Benno kicks Tore, whose body rolls down a slope and – the opposing bookend to the baptism at the beginning – comes to a rest in water with plant matter wreathed Christ-like around his head.

Back at the allotment, Sanny and Dennis manage to escape and the final shot is of them walking hand-in-hand down the road. When the final credits appear, instead of scrolling upwards in the conventional manner, they scroll downwards leaving us with the feeling of a descent into hell.

Director Katrin Gebbe has stated that, following a showing at Cannes, the film “had boos and cheers, escapees and long standing ovations”. I cannot for the life of me think why anyone would boo this movie. Certainly, the events it depicts are shocking in the extreme and Gebbe refuses to make moral judgments on behalf of the audience. Nor is there much that can be considered uplifting, unless you feel that Tore’s refusal to fight back is inspirational rather than naive. But surely these aspects are characteristic of a mature work of art that refuses to patronise its audience? In any event, although this is not an easy watch (I occasionally found myself curling my fists as I squirmed in discomfort) I consider that this is one of the stand-out movies of the year so far, underpinned by a strong script, strong direction, fine music and cinematography, and with a memorable performance by Julius Feldmeier as Tore.

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