“If I didn’t believe, I’d have nothing,” says the young protagonist Tore (Julius Feldmeier) at one point during “Nothing Bad Can Happen.” A lithe teen topped with a mop of blond curls who believes his occasional seizures are being prompted by the holy spirit, Tore’s devotion to Jesus goes unquestioned, though why it isn’t is the central question in Katrin Gebbe’s unforgiving feature debut. Bold and confident in ways her central character cannot be, the German writer/director’s first film charts Tore’s adoption by a family of trailer park dwellers who take perverse pleasure in toying with his beliefs, cultivated by a real-life movement in Germany of a cult of punk loving Christians known as the Jesus Freaks. While at first the family, led by a truculent patriarch named Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), would seem to be engaging Tore through innocuous hazing, the demands on the orphan grow increasingly sinister as his new sister shows signs of abuse and Benno’s wife Astrid (Annika Kuhl) appears indifferent as her husband sets about testing Tore’s limits.
Although Gebbe keeps the characters’ origins vague, depriving audiences of where Tore’s unshakeable faith or Benno’s deep-seated anger came from, her camera never flinches once they collide, examining in fine detail the dynamics that keep the family intact in spite of the casual and explicit cruelty that they inflict on one another. “Nothing Bad Can Happen” isn’t for the squeamish, yet for cinephiles looking for a daring new voice in world cinema, it is demanding of attention and while Gebbe and the film’s producer Verena Grafe-Hoft were in Austin last fall for Fantastic Fest, I had an all-too-brief chat with the two about the true events the inspired the film, the influence of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” and how they found out about the coincidence of sharing titles with Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl.
How did you get interested in this subject?
Katrin Gebbe: I was reading about these true events, which happened in Germany some years ago and I found it really interesting why a person would go to live with a family that’s evil [like the one in the film] without being pressured. It’s not like a child or a woman where there’s a love connection to the guy or where people would be connected as a family, but that it’s [based] on free will, so when I read the story, I was immediately taken by it.
You’ve said before the religious aspect of the story didn’t come into it until later on, but I’ve read the Jesus Freaks are a real thing, so how did they fit the story you wanted to tell?
KG: It really has to do with what I just said before. I tried to discover why people would do this – why you would have victims and humiliators. I didn’t want to have answers to everything, but I felt it could be really interesting to put on one side a lot of darkness and have a really beautiful, super-perfect protagonist who’s very moral as a contrast. He would forgive everything, he would allow everything. He would be like a modern Jesus Christ or as we were also discussing it, a modern Gandhi or something like this, but I felt the Christian religion is something a lot of people know about.
Verena Grafe Holt: And [the Jesus Freaks] are originally from Germany, so we can relate to it. It would’ve been strange to throw something onto a film that we’re not familiar with.
Is it true Dostoevsky was also an influence?
Yes, because I was thinking the antagonist Prince Myshkin. He is also very religious, and maybe you could call him an idiot, but on the other hand, maybe he’s a prophet, so you have to judge yourself, but the book [by Dostoyefsky] isn’t judging. What’s really interesting about it is he provokes a lot of reactions with all the other people, so this felt like the perfect setup for the character, a really great inspiration.
Was it a challenge to capture violence without making it exploitative?
KG: You always had to make a choice what you’d like to show and what not and you’d only show what would be necessary to show. But the violence belonged to the movie from the beginning because it’s inspired by a true story. We didn’t want to make just a slaughter film, so every time we used violence, it was because the protagonist had to take a new step, make a choice. He had to make movements and violence was his challenge, which was [always] increasing, so of course, it had to increase on different levels and it was really important. Since we used the Bible as a reference, the weight of the cross on Jesus Christ, you can refer to it in a very respectful way, but it was also very brutal…
VGH: …to nail somebody alive to a cross, it’s very brutal, so you have this meta level inside the story and if you want to refer to it in a modern way, you have to display it in a modern language.
My favorite scene in the film might’ve been twhen Sanny, Benno’s stepdaughter, attempts to seduce Tore and he rejects her advances, but almost immediately taps her playfully on the shoulder as if he has the short memory of a puppy. From what I understand, that was something that came from the actors, so how much did you want them to find those things on their own?
KG: That was really important to me because I find it just becomes alive when you find a certain truth. As a director on paper, you can’t find all the truth inside the story, so you have to give all the information and inspiration you have to your actors, then you have to allow them to live. I really tried to give them as many possibilities to improvise on scenes – it was clear what would be the beginning and end of a scene and everybody would know their characters, but being alive in the moment was really important. It’s nice we actually got a lot of days of shooting where we were really open with this because as I was telling [the actors], I wanted to improvise and now I’m really proud of how it worked out because you mentioned it.
A silly final question, but something cinephiles might notice – was it a coincidence that the chapters in your film of “Faith, Love and Hope” happen to be the same as the names of Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy of “Paradise” films?
VGH: Yeah, that’s by accident.
KG: It was not that we saw the films and thought, “Oh, he had a good idea.” [laughs]
VGH: Katrin was shooting and while editing the film, she came up and said, “Verena, I’ve got a really crazy idea [about the chapters] and maybe it would fit, but maybe it wouldn’t. And we tried it out because sometimes chapters are a little bit weird, but in this case, it fit the film quite well.
KG: Later on, I heard about this trilogy, then I thought “Ack, this sucks.” But I wouldn’t change it because of Ulrich Seidl. He didn’t invent it. [laughs]
“Nothing Bad Can Happen” is now open in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent and the Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane in Austin, Texas. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.