Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher is explosive and riotous with tour de force performances.
Love Meby Olivia Neilson
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
System Crasher is an unforgettable, dizzying, explosive journey full of noise, colour and texture, following one young girl’s desperate search for unconditional, parental love. It’s bursting at the seams with tantrums, cursing and violence, as well as moving displays of care, love and affection, constantly flipping between the two extremes.
The story revolves around young Benni (Helena Zengel) who has severe anger issues following an early trauma and is struggling to find a stable home in the German social care system. Desperate to return home to her biological mother who is living in an abusive relationship, suffering from her own mental health issues and struggling to make ends meet, Benni passes from one care home to the next, constantly uprooted, constantly searching for the unconditional love of her mother, who, as much as she would like, cannot provide a home for her daughter.
At just nine years of age at the time of filming, Helena Zengel’s breathtakingly raw performance as crass-mouthed, terrifying and terrified young Benni, is Oscar worthy. In fact, she is already set to star opposite Tom Hanks in the film due to be released later this year, News of the World.
Zengel pushes her performance to the limit in such an effortless and natural way that, despite the film’s tough subject matter, she never for one second makes it arduous to watch. Benni’s unexpected warmth and immense displays of tenderness can turn in a heartbeat to shocking violence against herself and others, and it is this unpredictable behaviour, when her fuse blows, that means she is deemed a ‘system crasher’, passing from one care home to the next. It is only when she meets Micha (Albrecht Schuch), the social care worker whose job it is to escort her to school, that there is a glimmer of hope for her future.
This is German documentary maker Nora Fingscheidt’s outstanding debut feature film which won the Silver Bear at last year’s Berlinale and was Germany’s Oscar entry. With its glitchy, fast-paced editing, shaky hand-held camera, and raucous film score to evoke Benni’s raw energy and mood swings, we are pulled into a swirling emotional journey inside the mind of a misfit child who we end up caring deeply for.
In a scene where Benni is a particular threat to herself and others, she is tied down by psychiatric staff and sedated, watched over solemnly by Micha in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Fingscheidt returns to this haunting shot when Benni lies motionless in the time-out room of the ward, looking out vacantly towards Micha behind the glass window. Benni’s light-blue eyes, which are the same colour as the walls, protrude out of her alabaster skin and pale blonde hair in an extreme close-up, with only her dilated pupils moving. It’s a tragic and terrifying vista to behold, like something out of a horror film.
Like the flipside of The Florida Project, which sees the traumatic tearing apart of mother and daughter when the social services deem young working-class mum Halley unfit to care for her six-year-old girl, System Crasher is about the social service’s passionate attempt to glue this mother-daughter bond back together and, when that is failing, to help Benni with her anger issues so that she can find a secure and loving home.
But similarly to The Florida Project, System Crasher is saying that no matter how much neglect or abuse is happening at home, a child will always want to return there, and it is this heartbreaking situation which Fingscheidt tries to work through in the film. When neither the system nor Benni’s own mother can care for her, where does that leave the child? The older she gets, the more likely it is she will be locked away, so with that knowledge, young social worker Micha sets himself the challenge of seeing if her anger issues get better by spending a few weeks together in his cabin in the woods.
Micha, who immediately crosses a line with Benni by entering her room without her permission, is not completely trustworthy at first. He comes across as a sort of lone wolf or “rough stone walking through life” as the actor Albrecht Schuch aptly describes in an interview during the Berlinale, and Fingscheidt hints at him having a violent past of his own.
We are only allowed into his life when Benni starts to trust him, and it is this subjective style of filmmaking which helps us see the world the way Benni sees it. In a scene where we can clearly see Benni’s anger and violence is a cry for help, she crawls into bed with Micha after having wet the bed. Micha’s immediate, paternal response whilst he is half asleep is to hold her closer, but when he realises what he is doing, how he could lose his job for crossing a professional line, he pushes her away vigorously, provoking Benni to scream and run away in the woods obscured by darkness.
In a similarly heart-breakingly raw scene, Micha invites Benni to hear her echo for the first time in the valley. Contrary to what we would expect, Benni uses the opportunity to repeatedly call out ‘mama’. She continues to call out, pushing past ‘the normal’ and into the zone of pleading desperation, making it almost unbearable to watch.
Micha’s naive and noble aims could not have anticipated the emotional connection he would form with Benni who starts to see him as a surrogate father, causing all sorts of complications, and endangering both their lives. With Micha and her mother unable to be the people Benni wants them to be, there is very little hope left for a girl whose violence gets more and more intense. But rather than toeing the Ken Loach-style line of traumatic social realism, Fingscheidt hangs onto the incredible, raw and liberating energy of a little girl holding her middle finger up to the world.
System Crasher is released on Curzon Home Cinema on 27 March 2020.
Curzon Home Cinema launches a live Q&A series today starting with System Crasher and a Q&A with director Nora Fingscheidt. Online there’s a curated series of critically acclaimed films to watch together followed by live director interviews. Register or log into your account now to stream it instantly.
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