Nothing bad can happen to him who carries the shield of faith.
I have a soft spot for titles that form complete sentences. A strong title very often provides a memorable plot and powerful characters. Such is the case with the German movie “Nothing Bad Can Happen” (original title “Tore tanzt”) from 2013.
The plot bears similarities to many recent torture movies that told stories of domestic abuse and horrible deeds done behind closed doors. Yet it is strikingly different because of its protagonist, Tore, who is a Jesus freak, a punk, and a modern saint. Or is he?
To quote IMDb plot summary (written by the movie first-time director Katrin Gebbe herself!):
The young Tore seeks in Hamburg a new life among the religious group called The Jesus Freaks. When he by accident meets a family and helps them to repair their car, he believes that a heavenly wonder has helped him. He starts a friendship with the father of the family, Benno. Soon he moves in with them at their garden plot, not knowing what cruelty is there to come.
I admit I watched the movie just because of its title, so I didn’t know even that. And I would add EXTREME cruelty in this description.
I like movies that break stereotypes. Here seeing two young men in punk clothes, smiling and talking about their faith in Jesus, calling themselves Jesus freaks, I immediately assumed them to be the bad ones. “Yep, we know such young believers. Soon they will kill someone with these fanatic smiles on their faces,” I thought.
No, the most crystal clear character in the whole movie is Tore, one of the youngsters. Angelic, blue-eyed, blonde-haired and slim, he has a pure soul and honest intentions.
It’s rare to see such strong, pure faith depicted in modern cinema. The movie proves why. As the punk preacher (Jesus Freaks commune consists only of such individuals) reminds the audience in the beginning, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, but it is very difficult to do so. The problem is that Tore is really capable of doing so. He strongly believes that because of this and his faith “nothing bad can happen” to him. This sounds fascinating to me. What if one person was truly capable of always turning the other cheek? Would we call it masochism or martyrdom? In today’s culture which perceives one’s well-being as an important value, Tore appears to be an imbecile. Who, in the age of “healthy egoism” and assertiveness, would willingly suffer if one can avoid it?
Here we have an extremely passive young male who consciously chooses this strategy because of his religious belief. This movie can be challenging because being so passive is usually connected to female characters. And even young female characters nowadays are meant to be assertive and able to fight for their own.
Without my faith I would have nothing.
Benno, the force of total nihilism and evil in the movie, at once recognizes Tore’s good nature. We are surprised that he allows him so readily into his life, providing him food and place to sleep. But soon we realize that Benno is like the proverbial devil, he cannot exist without his opposition.
The movie features extreme humiliation, violence, and harm, both physical and psychological. Tore’s goodness brings to life the worst human instincts possible – extreme sadism and perversion. He provokes the seemingly good citizens to become beasts. Step by step, they treat him like a slave, an animal, and then an object that can be destroyed.
I’m abused and yet not killed. I’m dying, and yet I live on. I own nothing, and yet possess everything.
At the same time, the movie is not a horror, all events are shown in a realistic, down-to-earth way. Even the religious vision of the protagonist gets a logical explanation, being only a sickly hallucination.
An interesting character is Benno’s wife who at first appears to be a victim who allows abuse of others because she is terrorized herself. While her passiveness wouldn’t make her less guilty, but would be partly justified, later we find out that at times she enjoys sadistic tortures just as much as Benno. She is fully aware of what’s happening and decides to either ignore or take part in it when she pleases. She is as evil as Benno, but even more hypocritical. The actress playing her, Annika Kuhl, portrays her nature in a very subtle way.
Yet the power of this movie lies in the fact that I never felt even for one moment that Tore deserves any of it, that he somehow provoked his abusers with his passive behavior. It would be very easy to shrug the movie with a simple “if you are weak, the strong will use you” Darwinist statement. But the movie makes me believe that Tore has good intentions and pure heart. He decides to turn the other cheek not because he enjoys suffering or is afraid, but because his faith is the only thing that keeps him alive. He prays desperately “I understand that Benno is the test for me, ” but he does not enjoy his victim status. The only time he stands up against Benno it is not for himself but for Sanny, Benno’s daughter and the only person Tore has romantic feelings for.
The bond between Sanny and Tore is a truly beautiful concept in this extremely dark world. At first hostile towards “a religious freak,” the girl learns to trust him and rely on him. Their time spent together shows child-like, joyful possibilities. Sanny always tries to protect Tore, even though he realizes that he should be the one to defend her. Their inability to ultimately help each other constitutes a tragedy. Rarely a relationship of unhappy lovers (here Platonic) moved me so much.
For me it’s a Southern Gothic movie that was made in Germany – this shows that some genres exceed the boundaries that literary theory and history invented. The whole plot could be Flannery O’Connor’s story. In fact, I’m almost certain that the creators of this film had to know some of her works. Or at least William Faulkner.
I think that this movie can be very easily misunderstood if one is not familiar with Southern Gothic aesthetic. Certain ideological bias, delusional and strong-minded characters are the core of this genre. Therefore even if the plot seems realistic and the characters’ behavior doesn’t, it all fits perfectly well into the convention.
I enjoyed the movie very much (even though it’s a heartbreaking stuff!), but as someone who ate her teeth on Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote, I can be a bit biased.
The film ends with an optimistic note that not everything is lost and there is still hope. Just like the three parts of the movie: “Faith”, “Love” and “Faith” state. The order is not accidental. There is always hope even in the darkest place, however cliché it sounds. But why do the good ones have to suffer?
The very end is extremely powerful, no matter how we interpret it. Every viewer interprets himself who won the battle.
I think that this movie can be interesting to both believers and non-believers, not because it presents a standard view at faith, but because it challenges it.
But the very last image destroyed me completely. A simple caption: “Based on true events.”
So much for unrealistic characters.
The movie was criticized by many when it first appeared at Cannes. I’m not surprised, but I’m not following the crowd in this instance. At the same time it won a few awards for its young director, Katrin Gebbe. It’s a brave work, better than most Southern Gothic movies (even if Gebbe didn’t try to make one). As a lover of grotesque, I was delighted. But this time the grotesque is not funny. This is the very dark side of grotesque, similarly important, but harder to swallow.
I’m back with new theme design. How do you like it? I have some fresh ideas. More posts soon!