Director: Nora Fingscheidt
Stars: Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Gabriela Maria Schmeide
With her ubiquitous bright pink puffer jacket, nine-year-old tearaway Benni (Helena Zengel) certainly stands out from whatever landscape she happens to be terrorising. Thanks to some extreme behavioural disorders, she lives a chaotic existence of constantly shifting parameters. Her mother, Bianca (Lisa Hagmeister), seems to have long wearied from any responsibility, while social services have pretty much exhausted the local institutions available to house her for any useful length of time. Unwanted and constantly perceived as little more than a problem, Benni acts out all the more often. Tantrums turn to violence or, scarier still, sudden threats of self-harm.
Into this arena steps Micha (Albrecht Schuch), initially assigned to supervise her trips to school and back. With those in charge of making her decisions fast running out of patience, Micha offers to take this ultimate problem child off their hands for a few days to his cabin in the woods. There, with no electricity, no internet, no distractions, the two of them have the opportunity to bond and a volatile and precarious balancing act begins.
System Crasher is a German film critical of the state’s inability to find solutions for children like Benni, but it doesn’t fall foul of simplistic Loachian scolding. This isn’t a composited laundry list of complaints about The State of Things. The situation displayed – the struggles of a juvenile overrun with feelings, overrun with past trauma – is hardly a-typical, but in Micha she is fortunate enough to have found, as she puts it, an Educator. He’s experienced with helping troubled children, showing Benni how to deflect her extreme antagonism without it necessarily becoming destructive. Slyly, his examples are never framed as ‘lessons’. She’s too savvy for that, and he knows it.
Nevertheless, the reappearance of Benni’s mother throws a spanner in the works. Micha’s influence isn’t an overnight fix, but the promise of stability is there. System Crasher seems to be keen to prescribe a consistent approach over flitting between temporary solutions. Change provokes volatility. The bond that grows between Benni and Micha is wholly charming and writer/director Nora Fingscheidt has been blessed thanks to some pitch perfect casting.
Young Helena Zengel is a wonder; a soulful young actor who is as brilliant at playing brash as she is vivid while vulnerable. She’s a real find for Fingscheidt. The narrative requires her to carry the film, and she does. Schuch, meanwhile, is quietly exceptional, breathing a sense of life and history into Micha, who is sketched lightly but grounded by this performance. What could’ve come across as rote instead feels human. Fingscheidt doesn’t press into sensationalism and Schuch’s parred-back choices are reflective of that.
Fingscheidt favours handheld, but doesn’t rush to manifest Benni’s chaotic episodes with incoherent shaky-cam or hyperactive cutting. Instead these impulses are bottled up and released between scenes in occasionally brackish transitions. The motif isn’t overplayed and works well. It allows the director to retain clarity during her scenes of conflict while still punctuating the whole with a sense of Benni’s turmoil.
What’s ultimately sad about System Crasher is how an emotional bond is seemingly frowned upon by the state, and by extension how a person like Micha simply cannot exist for every child. What’s depicted here can’t be relied upon as a solution for all and quite wisely isn’t presented as one. System Crasher credibly depicts how the system fails children of Benni’s age (too old to foster, too young for teenage facilities), while also providing – however fleetingly – a wonderful fantasy to solve it. Once done we are left to ponder how unlikely a good outcome is for most of the kids in this position, without feeling like we’ve been pummeled down this avenue. There’s even some joy from Fingscheidt for Benni. A suggestion that one size shouldn’t fit all, and that in the midst of her rage and her hyperactivity there’s also some kind of wonderful happening, too.
At the top of the film Benni tells us that she wants to be an Educator, also. In some respects, perhaps, she already is.
System Crasher is currently available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema for £4.99 (at the time of writing).