Starting this Friday Facets Multimedia will host a weeklong run of Nothing Bad Can Happen, an unsettling German docudrama written and directed by Katrin Gebbe. This is Gebbe’s first film, though it feels highly familiar, in part because the novice filmmaker wears her influences (Michael Haneke, Harmony Korine) on her sleeve, and in part because it has much in common with other recent titles released by Drafthouse Films, a young distribution company that aims to “destroy the barriers between grindhouse and art-house.” I have to give credit where credit is due—nearly every Drafthouse release I’ve seen features a potentially exploitative premise and a striking visual style. The selections have ranged from masterful (The Act of Killing, the re-releases Wake in Fright and Ms. 45) to imperfect but compelling (Borgman, Cheap Thrills, I Declare War) to gross and unedifying (The ABCs of Death, Pieta); but they all advance the conviction that cinema can transform even the most lurid subject matter into art.
I’m sympathetic to this sensibility (as you may have guessed from my recent reviews of Heli and Chuck Vincent’s Roommates), though I’m also wary of it. Too often filmmakers use the veneer of art to mask a basic exploitative agenda—The Impossible, J.A. Bayona’s recent disaster movie about the 2004 Thailand tsunami, springs instantly to mind. In some cases horrific imagery can undermine a filmmaker’s better intentions, as in the Australian docudrama The Snowtown Murders or Nothing Bad Can Happen. Gebbe’s film tells the story of a young evangelical in Hamburg’s Christian punk scene who comes to live with an atheistic sadist and his victimized family. In an effort to distract the sadist’s attention from his teenage stepdaughter, he submits to increasingly hideous forms of abuse. The film’s climax isn’t as gruesome as that of Heli, but it comes close.
Gebbe elicits a remarkable star turn from Julius Feldmeier, who plays the young fundamentalist. His slippery performance complicates our understanding of the young hero, who seems at once principled and naive, heroic and masochistic. For much of its running time, Nothing Bad is an interesting case study, raising provocative questions about faith and martyrdom. But as the depictions of abuse get longer and more graphic, those questions are eclipsed by shock value. Where the awful violence of a movie like Heli or Ben Wheatley’s Kill List prompts spectators to reflect on large-scale atrocities, the gore of Nothing Bad serves only to elaborate on a psychological study that was plenty compelling without it.
Coincidentally Drafthouse Films is also the U.S. distributor of Wheatley’s most recent feature, A Field in England. It’s too bad that film didn’t play theatrically in Chicago (it’s currently available on DVD, however), as it strikes me as Wheatley’s most visually interesting work to date. Shot in black-and-white and wide-screen, Field is a psychedelic period piece set during the English Civil War. The loopy story finds a few deserters taking up with an alchemist’s assistant, who takes them to the title location to help his master search for a buried treasure. Somewhere along the way, the assistant (and possibly some of the other characters) ingest psilocybin mushrooms. Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump deliberately obscure whether the drama is “real” or hallucinated, and in so doing create a vivid nightmare that also provides insight into occult history.
Wheatley has cited two 60s cult films as major inspirations on Field: Michael Reeves’s period horror tale The Conqueror Worm (1968) and Peter Watkins’s experimental featurette The Battle of Culloden (1964), the latter of which presented England’s conquest of the Scots in the fashion of a contemporary TV news broadcast. That’s a fascinating set of allusions—far more provocative than the narrow range of art house shockers whom Gebbe cites as models—since the two are significantly different enough to produce something novel in combination. Ironically Field feels at once more artful than Nothing Bad and more satisfying as pulp entertainment. Jump’s wicked sense of humor and Wheatley’s psychedelic visuals advance a distinctive worldview, making a wild ride of the characters’ descent into madness.