By Louie Bell, Deputy Film & TV Editor
Nora Fingscheidt’s fantastically explosive drama about a girl pushing the German social system to the edge is a devastating portrait of the effects on her family and the institutions who cannot cope with her.
System Crasher (2019), the debut film from German Filmmaker Nora Fingscheidt, screened last week at the Watershed for a celebration of European cinema.
It tells the story of nine year-old Benni (Helena Zengel) whose destructive behaviour means she pinballs around foster homes, emergency refuges and schools who simply cannot deal with her violence, expletive-ridden outbursts and disturbed screaming.
When Michel (Albrecht Schuch), a grown man dealing with his own anger issues, takes her under his wing and invites her to the woods to try and deal with her behaviour, there seems to be a path to real change for her. However, as she returns, new traumas begin to emerge and her future path is thrown into dilemma.
From the start, Benni’s destructive behaviour is characterised by mangled, contorting physicality as she fights and screams - boy does she scream - with other children who continually provoke her.
With no one to back her up and constantly vying for attention, she punches a hole through every single layer of childcare services in a vicious circle, getting further and further from what she truly longs for: her mother.
In one scene Michel asks Benni if she’s ever heard her echo, encouraging her to call out to something she wants to hear back. She slowly calls out “Mama” repeating it over and over again until the valley rings with her desperate, fading cries. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking moment that every audience member relates to.
Helena Zengel’s superb performance crackles with childish energy but the hum of a deep vulnerability never disappears
System Crasher is brilliant. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion that broke my heart only to wrap me up in the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug - then break my heart again.
It’s intense and tough to face up to but above all it’s a haunting portrait of failing social care systems and the trauma of abandonment. It’s suitably infuriating yet fascinatingly tender, never once casting Benni as an antagonist but placing her as a victim of some kind of neglect.
Helena Zengel’s superb performance crackles with childish energy but the hum of a deep vulnerability never disappears. Glances of a traumatic past never explicitly shown are accompanied by a groaning score and jarring flashes of bright pink that reminded me of the hallucinatory sequences in Monos (2019).
Her rejection of help from those who tirelessly work in her interest is infuriating but particularly poignant for me; I have grown up seeing this frustration in my own mother - a health and social worker in deprived Essex communities.
Another performance that stands out is Albrecht Schuch as Michel, a product of the same social system who has learned to control his emotions and cares for Benni deeply, seeing much of his past self in her reckless conquest of anger and violence.
Michel seems to be the only one who can reach Benni on an emotional level, teaching her patience and some degree of empathy. It’s from his carefully-nuanced approach to Benni’s behaviour that we begin to see warm flickers of kindness and understanding as they grow together.
The film deals with complex sociological themes unlikely to be familiar to many viewers, Michel confesses that his professional distance is gradually being marred by “rescue fantasies” - he begins to believe he alone can save Benni from her own destruction. These details are dealt with carefully and woven masterfully into the narrative to ground the film in hard-hitting realism.
Bright colours and fast paced editing reflect the chaotic moods that Benni is prone to after a while can begin to feel fatiguing, but I came to realise that this was on purpose.
It’s deliberately fatiguing, it’s meant to reflect the mental state of everyone who actually has to live in this world, to keep caring day-in, day-out, to know there’s only so much you can do as you stand by and watch the most damaged of children spiral out of control.
System Crasher has had a significant impact in Germany where the response has been so good that it has been linked with actual policy change
As I realised I had been given a small glimpse into the world of so many social workers who have to live with this kind of world in reality, my Mum’s stories returned to my mind with a potency I’d never really understood.
A scene where Benni’s social worker tearfully slumps against a wall and sobs to her colleagues moved me to tears beyond my own comprehension. Compassion fatigue is real and it’s widespread amongst health and social services, so it's important that System Crasher has had a significant impact in Germany where the response has been linked with actual policy change in local government.
When it comes to UK cinemas next year I hope you’ll go in prepared to take a short glimpse at the reality of social care, the reality of overstretched and under-funded services and the reality of traumatised young lives.
I hope you see this film.
Featured: IMDb / Kineo Films
Will you be watching System Crasher (2019) when it arrives in UK cinemas?