LFF 2019: System Crasher Review
It would be easy to view nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel) as another in a long line of cinema’s demon children, one possessed by anger and an overwhelming inability to manage her raging emotions.
But German writer-director Nora Fingscheidt's System Crasher is not a horror in a traditional sense, rather an empathetic psychological drama asking difficult questions about the way troubled kids navigate the child welfare system.
Benni hates her full name, Bernadatte, and has spent years being kicked out of dozens of care homes and foster homes. We learn she was abused when younger (although details are fleeting) and has effectively been abandoned by a mother trapped in an abusive relationship. Zengel’s performance as the young terror is mesmeric to say the least, pitching herself into the cascading violence that most days collapse into. On the flipside, Benni can be as charming and sweet as you’d expect any young child to be, but is so often unwilling to co-operate that concerns grow about her effect on other kids she comes into contact with.
It’s a dilemma that leaves child welfare workers at a loss as to what to do next, although manager Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) tries her best to find a workable solution. In steps tough-minded co-worker Micha (Albrecht Schucht), who at first starts as Benni’s escort to school, before taking up a more pivotal role in Benni’s life. But even with the best of intentions there is likely a limit to what Micha can do to help.
There are no easy answers on offer here and just when you take a liking to Benni we are asked to challenge our own concerns due to her constant acting out. Even those she takes a liking to are pushed to the very limit, forgetting she is just a vulnerable child. At the end of the day, whether she simply needs her mother and a stable home, or treatment for potential psychosis, Benni is still only one child in a maze of many.
How much resources can be given to her without having a detrimental effect on others? How long do they wait to find the right combination of circumstances before more severe and detrimental options are all that are left? Is any progress being made or is Benni just getting worse as she gets older?
Fingscheidt keeps an even hand when it comes to appraising Benni and those in her world. She understands how difficult it can be for everyone involved and while that is fair approach, it also leads her to become stuck in a narrative loop that lurches toward an ambiguous, but slightly irritating, ending. You may lose count of the amount of times we have to watch Benni break free of her carers while bedlam breaks out in the background. Of course, it’s illustrative of her repetitive behaviour and daily routine but Fingscheidt‘s failure to lay the blame at anyone’s door eventually sends her film down a dead end.
Yunus Roy Imer’s cinematography is reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers’ raw style, which is also no doubt informed by Fingscheidt’s previous documentary work. It offers a clean and simple way to see things from Benni’s point of view and understand the real-world consequences of her actions. While System Crasher could possibly be shorter and isn’t completely successful in bringing its ideas together into a coherent whole, thanks to Zendel’s mature and magnetic presence it’s a film that will linger in the mind long after the credits roll by.
System Crasher plays at the London Film Festival and is released in select UK cinemas on December 6.
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