When any parent playfully refers to one of their kids as the ‘problem child’, its usually a joke. Even if it isn’t, the phrase is more often than not hyperbolic. However System Crasher is about the real deal, the problem child that constantly can’t get out of her own way. Partly because of past trauma and her current circumstances,9 year old Benni (A jawdroppingly real Helena Zengel) struggles with anger issues and impulse control and watching the adults around her try and handle her, never really understanding her is painful to witness but revealing of a system full of people desperately trying to fix family situations while trying not to get their hands dirty or get too involved. An unpleasant, frequently distressing film that all too frequently connects to a real world that shouldn’t exist but does. System Crasher is essential viewing and easily one of 2020’s best films.
Director Nora Fingscheidt’s film is constructed in such a way that you are placed firmly in the position of a new caseworker in a system that Benni is slipping through the cracks of. The film follows her as she is banished from multiple different group homes, foster families and even her own mothers dubious ‘care’. For many different reasons, some that are often inexcusable, Benni bounces around almost as if she is inviting it on herself. Pay close attention though and she tells a different story.
Either because of apathetic social workers or ones that have just given her too many chances, Benni is frequently referred to as the titular system crasher because taking care of her means neglecting the other kids. So when Benni’s new school companion Micca (Albrecht Schuch) offers to give her one on one care in the woods for three weeks, the idea is jumped on as nothing any of them have done so far has actually worked. It’s just another in a long line of new approaches because nothing seems to work. However Fingscheidt crafts her story around ups and downs, the manic nature of Benni’s personality.
While you start the film the spectator, Fingscheidt slowly pushes you into Benni’s mindset and that is one of constant unease. Be it waiting for the latest shoe to drop at the latest in a long line of care homes, or the moment that another adult gives up on her. The idea that nothing good lasts looms over every moment of joy, so much so that when Benni messes up or is let down, not only does she blame herself for not expecting it, hoping for the best, but you do too.
As Micca grows closer to Benni, the instability really kicks in. While the woods provide moments of bonding, they prove just as damaging as the constant movement and change does. The question quickly becomes if anything can be done at all. For most of System Crasher’s run the camera literally follows Benni, a girl with boundless energy constantly moving, sometimes running from one place to another. Cameramen chase after her the same way her beleaguered careworkers do. In these moments Benni is important but when she is surrounded by other kids she fades into the background of a system looking to swallow her up and forget about her. She fights, often physically against it and oftentimes with bloody side effects.
Frequently characters forget that Benni is still only 9, too consumed with the force of nature that she is. Zengel bouys from feral beast to innocent child in a heartbeat, and as a viewer, its a challenge just to keep up. Zengel makes it look easy but this is next level acting that cements you into a world you want nobody to see, let alone experience. Sympathetic and remorseless in equal measure, Benni is a contradiction, one who wants to be around people but freaks out when she is touched. A fearless yet terrified little girl who knows what she wants but never how to get it. Her own actions may prove tragic but it is the adults around her that prove truly harmful, the caring support network that cares, but only as much as they are allowed to.
While Fingscheidt constantly controls the visuals, making Benni look small in times of disappointment and 100ft tall in times of glee, it is the performances here that make System Crasher what it is. Zengel attacks her material and the other kids while Schuch plays Micca like a man who knows what he is doing, until he realises he doesn’t. Here hope is the enemy and Zengel runs with this notion, constantly bucking to the notion while still letting it seep in, just to disappoint her again.
Grimly executed yet never melancholy, System Crasher, even in its darkest moments is still lively and bold thanks to a central performance you have to see to believe and a director who is willing to hang back and follow, letting Benni tell her story for her. Akin to documentary filmmaking, Fingscheidt pays attention to an all too often ignored group of children and the adults struggling to provide care with limited resources. While it would work as a real documentary, it might be best that Benni’s story is one of fiction because kids lives should never be like this.