March 1, 2010 / Filmwell
The most recent issue of the delightfully ad hoc monthly periodical The Believer is packed …
July 15, 2014
Katrin Gebbe’s first feature, Nothing Bad Can Happen, quite impressively made it all the way to Cannes in 2013. It is a hard enough film to watch that it met with mixed reception. From reviews I have scanned (so, consider this unscientific), most are repelled by the film because it does all kinds of awful things to its lead character.
Which is true. But I haven’t seen many build a case that Gebbe doesn’t have chops. Which she has.
Nothing Bad Can Happen starts as a story about Tore, a young man who finds himself attracted to a Christian youth collective in Hamburg, known around town as the Jesus Freaks. These anarchic Christian subcultures are pretty common both in the US and Europe. Among defining characteristics, such collectives attempt to contextualize the communal nature of Jesus’ economic principles for our era. The greatest of these principles is love, which becomes the organizing ethic for many of these communes. Some of them are wonderful, inexplicable places. The lost find a place to begin rebuilding their lives, families settle and bear children, entire micro-economies develop as such collectives deepen their roots in a local community. I have experienced a few firsthand that are remarkable, idyllic expressions of early Christianity.
I have also experienced a few that aren’t. Such communities quickly turn their promises into judgments about who is in and who is out. They are attractive to new believers yet fail to offer the depth of teaching and care that are the basic ingredients of new life. They are the kind of shallow gardens Jesus described in a parable, which are only capable of growing seed that withers quickly. And they develop cracks, large ones, such as the one through which Tore quickly slips after his baptism.
This failure of this Hamburg community has devastating consequences for Tore. He has his own physical and mental issues, for sure. But Tore soon finds himself in a dire situation with a really contorted and unformed understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Tore knows that a disciple is literally one called to imitate Christ, but what does that actually mean? The history of Christianity is full of disciples that have taken such a calling seriously enough that they embraced the kind of physical suffering and macabre death experienced by Jesus. Christian martyrdom in this sense is a literal bearing witness to the pattern of humility and sacrifice exemplified by Jesus’ life and death. But when such self-annihilation seems meaningful only in the eyes of the disciple, when it serves no discernible moral or social purpose, then what?
Cinema has long argued that reduplicating Jesus’ pattern of life and death as a mode of being is absurd. Buñuel’s Nazarin is a good example of a film that attempts to portray the self-defeating nature of radical Christian discipleship. By way of Lanthimos (Dogtooth), Von Trier (Breaking the Waves), or even Noe (any of his films), Nothing Bad Can Happen arrives at the same place. I mention these directors because they have become commonly associated with the use of Rube Goldberg narrative torture contraptions that put their actors through their paces over the course of a film. Von Trier’s use of ecstatic Christian passion to soldier on in self-abnegation in Breaking the Waves is a fitting analogue to Gebbe’s film. We are left with bodies physically and sexually broken, minds disconnected from a world gone horrible wrong, and general spiritual devastation.
Nothing Bad Can Happen, despite the title, should be considered within this trend of European cinema. But, I don’t think it can simply be reduced to this trend and dismissed.
Throughout the course of the film it is clear that Gebbe understands the process of Christian conversation and the initial internalization of Christian ideas well enough to bend them in the right places. Q.E.D.: His constant repetition of half-memorized scripture (such as the title of the film, which is a broad paraphrase of Ephesians 6:16). His constant awkward prayers. His totemic reliance on the name of Jesus and presence of the Spirit. His disconnection from a more grounded Christian community. The manic nature of his desire to embody Jesus’ love. These are all marks of the new believer in Tore’s context, which Gebbe does a fine job of cataloging.
What happens to Tore at the hands of the family that has taken him in is unbearable. It just gets worse and worse until the reflexes gained through experiencing directors like Lanthimos or Noe begin start to trigger. But Gebbe has developed Tore well enough as a product of so many flawed communities that his martyrdom is meaningful as a theological discourse. In his review, Darrell Manson asks if this is a “Christian movie.” Sadly, it is. It is a “Christian movie” in the very controversial way it is about forms of discipleship and self-annihilation as dramatic delusions about love and grace.
Great interview with Gebbe here at Goethe Institut. She has some interesting thoughts about new German cinema.
Note: Nothing Bad Can Happens also contains a Christ-appearance of the sort I catalog here at Filmwell in the Alternative History of Jesus posts that are currently becoming a book. In this case, the Christophany is quickly revealed to be the result of an epileptic fit, which underscores Gebbe’s suggestion throughout the film that Tore’s spiritual experience is more of a mental issue than he thinks. One arguable reading of the film is that Tore has really just projected a psychological issue onto his conversion experience. This appearance of Jesus is then for the viewer a gracious reminder that Tore’s theology is quite literally, insane. The question posed by the film, however, remains: What sort of acceptable insanities are present in self-sacrificing love?