System Crasher [Systemsprenger] (2020)
"There is no silver-lining here, just stark, balanced and empathetic film making throughout."
This German-drama was a hit during the late 2019 festival circuit. I didn’t manage to catch it during the London Film Festival but I’m so glad to have finally caught up on all the hype. Having won awards at the Berlinale and Germany’s official entry in the most recent Oscars it’s clearly resonated with a lot of people. System Crasher shares the all-too familiar and devastating story of children in care. It’s so easy to get frustrated and agitated with these so-called problem children. I’m guilty of it, don’t pretend you all aren’t. The ones who screech and cry and shout and swear when they’re out in public with their guardians. We look around judgmentally until our eyes land on the parents and go ‘Ah yes… there we are, there’s the reason’. OK, perhaps we’re not all that harsh, but a lot of people are. This film goes to show that the children themselves are the ones suffering the most and that they’re not so much crashing the system as the system is crashing them. Director Nora Fingscheidt discovered the term ‘System Crasher’ while working on a documentary for a homeless shelter. It described children as young as 14 who were moved into the shelter when there were no other alternatives for them to go to. In the film, Benni is only 9, but she is moved from situation to situation and from person to person, literally crashing the foster care system she inhabits. Benni is, as I described, a nightmare at face value. She is foul-mouthed, spiteful and aggressive. She’s also extremely vulnerable, clever and sensitive. The undying love she has for her biological mother is all the more heart-breaking when you realise they can almost certainly never be reunited.
"We’re the ones looking in on her like some sort of social experiment that’s careening wildly out of control."
Fingscheidt tells this deeply-researched tale with aplomb and it’s to her credit that she manages to never once point the finger at either Benni or the system in which she is trapped. The system is flawed, yes, but those working within it are trying their best. Whether it’s a group of strangers gathered around a table discussing a child’s future, or a single person taking her into his home so that she might have one night of reprieve from her tumultuous routine. Everyone is doing their best in a really shitty situation. Alongside their best efforts, Benni is both seen and heard constantly, crashing our own systems with every vitriolic tirade of abuse and every appearance of her dazzlingly bright pink coat. She is traumatised having been removed from her unstable family and it’s hardly surprising she’s so out of control. There is no silver-lining here, just stark, balanced and empathetic film making throughout. Benni is framed in windows so many times throughout the film. Whether she’s staring out at the world beyond her room or laid out on a stretcher in a hospital ward. She knows she’s being observed, studied, peered at. We’re the ones looking in on her like some sort of social experiment that’s careening wildly out of control. Often, on the other side of the window, is Micah, a sympathetic guy who goes above and beyond the norms to try and connect with Benni. His measures are extreme yet completely normal and suggest that ‘systems’ are actually the least helpful things in the world sometimes. They can be too rigid, too soulless and too naive. Helena Zengel is stunning as Benni. I believed she was that troubled young girl for every second of the movie, the cracks never showing. It’s really impressive stuff given the intensity and rawness required for the part and I look forward to more from her in the future. Albrecht Schuch is the perfect counterpoint as Micah and their scenes together are without question the highlights of the movie.
"Helena Zengel is stunning as Benni."
For all my gushing, I do have some problems with it, most notably that it’s too long. I’m well aware that the repetition of Benni’s outbursts as she’s moved on from pillar-to-post are supposed to show how systemic her turmoil is but it begins to drag. I also think that given how real and honest so much of the film feels, that Micah’s wife’s reaction to Benni felt very unlikely and unusual. I wouldn’t have minded had her sympathy not come at such a crucial point in the narrative. It’s also, bizarrely forgettable. Whilst watching I was engrossed. But now that the dust has had time to settle I’m left with memories of scenes and not much else. At its heart it's a very protective and tender film which rightly thrusts to the forefront the struggle and strife of those who can so easily get swallowed up and forgotten by systems. Perhaps I’d have scored it a little higher if there had been one or two more answers or hints as to what could be done differently. But then perhaps that’s the point. There are no easy answers, as thousands of ‘Benni’s’ across the world are sadly finding out for themselves.