Pouring a lot of heart into her latest feature-length release, German writer and director Nora Fingscheidt hits screens with System Crasher, a powerful story of what happens when a child crash lands in the care system.
Benni (Helena Zengel) is what some would describe as a ‘wild child’. With an uncontrollable temper, when Benni gets going she really gets going – throwing punches, spitting, swearing. Jumping from care home to care home (known as a ‘system crasher’), all Benni wants is to return to her mum, Bianca (Lisa Hagmeister). However, with her two younger, impressionable siblings living at home – and with her rages swelling into bigger, more violent outbursts – Benni has to stay in care, away from her one source of comfort.
Refusing to go to school, Benni’s carers bring in ‘educator’ Micha (Albrecht Schuch) to attend her classes with her, restraining and calming her down when needs be. Seeing potential in Benni during her quieter times, Micha takes her on a vacation to stay in the woods – no electricity, no heating, no distractions or taunts from other children. Off to a rough start, Benni soon settles into woodland life, meaning she refuses to leave and kicks off when Micha packs up the car when their three days come to an end. Giving in to her screaming and self-harm attempts (and breaking one of the key rules of caring), he allows her to stay for one night at his home with his wife and toddler son. But once Benni finds out where he lives, it’s hard to change her mind when she starts to believe that Micha (and his family) is her new sanctuary.
At times, System Crasher is poignant, telling the story of how a child can bounce around in the care system, with little power to change her situation. At other moments, it’s a reckless, thrashing thriller, revealing a much darker side to Benni’s temper. The simple cinematography of Benni’s everyday life is cut with kinetic montages symbolising her anger – flashes of bright pink, dogs barking, high pitched violins. It’s disorientating and distracting, managing to give us a glimpse into how Benni must feel.
On that note, it has to be said that Zengel is fantastic. It’s hard to believe that we’re not watching a child living with anger management difficulties thrash out – she’s that convincing. Flicking a switch in her brain, Zengel contorts her face from angelic, wide-eyed innocence to animalistic outrage, ripping and tearing through a scene; it’s truly fantastic to watch. Schuch, likewise, is equally convincing, the caring father-figure Benni’s missing, but also a frustrated teacher and carer, unable to connect properly with his student.
While the performances and direction are so strong, what left me feel a little flat is the story. The narrative’s open ending doesn’t give the audience the closure we need after such a tumultuous ride. While some will revel in the open-endedness, others will roll through the final credits disappointed they didn’t get to discover what happens to Benni, be it good or bad. Also, after 125 minutes of near constant cursing and shouting, I started to lose patience with Benni, seeing her less as a sympathetic figure and more as a disobedient kid. Be warned – some of her actions are so violent, I’d personally find them unforgivable. It’s a wonder to me that certain characters had so much time for her.
There’s no denying that System Crasher is an impressive suckerpunch of a film, but the story’s focus on a screaming child – one you do just want the best for – may slowly grate on some. It’s a twisting nature of the narrative is a thrill, but maybe not something to watch during our current, unsteady, anxiety-inducing climate. Stay for Zengel and Schuch butting heads, but take my advice and turn the volume down.