Director: Nora Fingscheidt
Starring: Helena Zengel, Lisa Hagmeister, Albrecht Schuch, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Melanie Straub, Victoria Trauttmansdorff, Maryam Zaree, Tedros Teclebrhan
Words – Rhiannon Topham
A ‘system crasher’ is a child in the care system whose destructive behaviour render them unsuitable, or at least unplaceable, for a stable and permanent place to reside. Nine-year-old Benni (an impressively polished performance by Helena Zengel), the eponymous crasher of Nora Fingscheidt’s first full-length feature, is too young for a more rigorous treatment programme but too bellicose and aggressive to stay in foster care or group homes due to her frequent bursts of violence which put the fellow children (and staff) in danger.
Child protection services are at their wit’s end with the hyperactive and unpredictable Benni, who’s singular goal of going home to live with her mother is naively misguided yet admirably stubborn. Her mother (Lisa Hagmeister), is vulnerable, living with a man at loggerheads with Benni, scared of what her daughter is capable of, and struggling to cope with daily life as it is; jobless, her son has started mimicking Benni’s actions and her youngest daughter is unwell.
In framing this austere tale, System Crasher is full of difficult polarities: between medication and heuristic intervention; the well-meaning intentions versus the sheer desperation–and exasperation–of child protection services, Benni’s school escort, Micha (Albrecht Schucht), and her mother; and within Benni herself, in her abundance of both fight and flight instincts, and her internal conflicts of wanting to get her own way but outright rejecting help from others or the possibility of compromise.
The film’s strengths are also what make it a difficult watch. Rather than sequester her into an institution, Benni’s child welfare caseworker, Maria Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), refuses to give up on finding her a stable home, and genuinely wants her to succeed at school and thrive socially, emotionally and personally. But in order to do that, they need to help Benni overcome an inimical childhood trauma they attribute to her foul-mouthed antics and extreme reactions to being touched on the face. Agonisingly, everytime there is a glimmer of progress, Benni falls back into her old behaviours and lashes out, runs away, unleashes an almighty scream, or all of the above. When Micha steps in and offers to take Benni to his cabin in the woods for three weeks in a last-ditch attempt to ameliorate her outbursts, he finds himself compromising his position as an impartial professional and relenting to Benni’s demands to spend a night in his family home with his pregnant wife and toddler instead of returning to her group home.
There is a tenderness and sympathy in how Benni’s story unfolds, how an abused child struggles to match their external stimuli to their internal needs and instincts, and Zengel effortlessly enacts Benni’s multiplex of states, transitioning from moments of serenity to all-out viciousness with a competency and depth normally seen in actors far older than she. But you are left wondering what the message is supposed to be; yes, this is a troubled child but one with a track record of dangerous behaviour towards herself and others.
While medication should not be, and is not, the answer, Benni’s caregivers have a duty of care to protect the young children around her, and it’s difficult to see how shuttling her between group homes and dangling the possibility of returning to her mother is an adequate or fair response.