Psychotherapist Max (August Zirner, ‘The Counterfeiters’) is a divorced father of two teenage daughters, with a headstrong ex-wife (Barbara Auer) for a best friend, a handful of odd patients and a new dog. His psychotherapy study is a second home and metaphoric cage (the film opens with a shot of caged animals at an animal shelter) for patients reeling from death, loss, heartbreak and existential doubt. They include a dog-lover with a deep emptiness inside him, a conspiracy theorist, a writer stuck on a missing ex, a homosexual pilot whose dying partner’s family is keeping him away from the man he loves, and a sound designer having an affair with a married man. There’s also a coolly efficient woman who works at a zoo, accompanied by a lonely man (Bjarne Mädel, ‘25 km/h’) trying to find her sensitive side.
‘What Doesn’t Kills Us’ is director Sandra Nettelbeck’s return to German filmmaking and to the themes of the string of drama-comedies which founded her reputation. In 2001, Nettelbeck wrote and directed her most widely-known film, the multiple-award winning ‘Mostly Martha’ (remade in 2007 by Warner Bros. as the bland ‘No Reservations’). That movie's main character, Martha Klein, was an accomplished, controlling chef who worked in a chic German restaurant but struggled with major personal issues outside the kitchen and visited a therapist regularly. Martha represented the typical character in a Nettelbeck film: professionals who are no longer able to face the daily lives they feel unable to control. Max, the hero of ‘What Doesn’t Kills Us’, is the kind of guy that Nettelbeck’s characters would usually have to visit in order to get their lives under control.
Already juggling a mix of depressed patients, Max doesn’t need any new challenges. Instead he’s in desperate need of some rest and relaxation (at one point, a man on the street expresses mild concern for Max, who fantasises about embracing him in gratitude). His life is further complicated by Sophie, a compulsive gambler with relationship issues, who regularly shows up late for her appointments. Max slowly realises he's falling for Sophie, and the more he tries to keep their therapist/patient relationship on a professional level, the more their lives become entangled.
The film weaves a lot of unexpected connections and narrative threads (some of them rather loosely) with its multitude of characters, following them throughout their day-to-day lives and linking the stories (sometimes tenuously) via Max’s therapy sessions.
The film weaves a lot of unexpected connections and narrative threads (some of them rather loosely) with its multitude of characters, following them throughout their day-to-day lives and linking the stories (sometimes tenuously) via Max’s therapy sessions. While the film occasionally succumbs to sentimentality and hinges strongly on a sense of hopefulness, it doesn't shy away from showing how broken certain people are and how their despair usually comes from their own mistakes and wrong decisions.
‘What Doesn’t Kill Us’ is squarely aimed at an older audience of incurable romantics. If emotional ballads, montage sequences and romantic ensembles with sentences for titles (‘He’s Just Not That Into You’, 'I’ll See You In My Dreams’, ‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story’) are your thing, then you will get something out of Sandra Nettelbeck’s latest film.