On the onset, What Doesn’t Kill Us looks like a Hollywood ensemble of the likes of Love Actually that deals with love and relationships. But in the able hands of Sandra Nettelbeck, this German tragic-comedy manages to be just a little more than that. Peppered with numerous lives of people dealing with trauma, grief, death, loss, heartbreak and internal and external conflict, the film becomes a soulful meditation on the life in the in-betweens.
Max Lang (August Zirner) is a psychotherapist to what can be called an ailing, sad and disturbed group of people dealing with the trauma inflicted by death, loss, heartbreaks and at times – plain emptiness. While Max is a father to two daughters – with the elder being constantly on edge, he also provides free couch-talks to his ex-wife and best friend (Barbara Auer). The other patients include a dog-lover who just can’t seem to figure out what empty feeling succumbs inside him, a gravedigger and his conspiracy-driven sister (who also provides the comic-relief when things get too poignant), an out of touch writer stuck on a missing ex, a homosexual pilot struggling with his seizing anxiety plus the unconcerning mother of his partner and a sound-designer who is a lovelorn fool in her affair with a married man. There’s also an over-insensitive, idiocentric woman who works at a zoo and is mostly accompanied by a lonely man looking for her sensitive side.
Most of the threads in Sandra Nettelbeck film criss-cross each other a number of times. The large part of these jumbled threads confuses the audience when it fails to match up with the characters. However, there are other important moments in the film that drive-through with great authenticity and give genuine power to the wobbly narrative. The disconcerting issues of dealing with sad people and their emotional conflicts doesn’t necessary charm you, which is why Nettelbeck presents her drama as a tragedy with broken faucets and a dreaming parable. That is, there are times when character go into an image of steps to come (most of which do not take place in reality) giving the film and it’s somewhat cop-out approach a truer meaning.
While the film hinges too strongly on its hopefulness (the title is a clear indication of where it wants to lead), it does not shy away from showing how broken certain people are and how their despair usually comes from their own mistakes and wrong decisions. Moreover, What Doesn’t Kill Us skillfully traces why people need to be heard more than being alone and how they need connections more than they need relationships. It’s a wise film that occasionally succumbs to sentimentality but never frets away from its central theme that says hope is just around the corner. If not on the couch of a psychiatrist then maybe in a coffee shop with transparent glasses and wooden benches. All you gotta do is look in and then – look out.