System Crasher is a brazen and unreserved telling of a child whose out-of-control behaviour prevents her from finding any type of permanence. Benni (Helena Zengel) is this story’s nine year-old girl who bounces from home to home, medical facility to medical facility, between blood-family and social worker as her inability to control her highly-emotional and rash behaviour causes her to be a constant presence within the grips of the German foster system. Benni’s biological mother (Lisa Hagmeister) stays with her other two younger children, plus the occasional boyfriend with whom Benni highly disapproves of. Her mother can’t cope with Benni’s incontrollable behaviour nor her loud and violent outbursts; there’s allusions to trauma in Benni’s past, and her mother’s obvious love doesn’t help the fact that she’s scared of her own daughter. This means the nine year-old ends up thrown into a system which seemingly cannot handle her either. There is a flicker of hope when anger-management coach Mica (Albrecht Schuch) takes her on as her school escort, usually dealing with older teenagers but now attempting to help Benni control her behaviour enough so she can return home to her mother, the only thing she wants to do. However, Mica’s work crosses over with his home life, resulting in Benni causing more waves of despair that every other adult ended up giving up on.
This film is highly emotional, and totally genuine. The portrayal of the ‘problem child’ is not dramatised, and the reality of the emotional swings and breaks that a young child in Benni’s position can have is rendered quite accurately. The writing and characterization of the adults’ exasperation towards the child, mixed with a whole ton of sympathy and strained-yet-prevalent affection definitely contributes to this solid depiction. The strained relationship each adult has with Benni is distinct and the interactions between them and her have clearly been written with conscious thought and decision, and research on the subject matter has evidently been done. The acting of Helena Zengel completely sells the character of the ‘system crasher’. It’s almost like watching a documentary, and this realism that such a young child brings to the character means there’s even more of a sympathetic connection between Benni and the audience. Despite the destruction she causes you still root for her, and when she’s tranquilised and staring blankly, yet wide-eyed, into the camera as she lies in an empty hospital room, you realise how tiny and naive she really is.
The authenticity that Zengel brings to Benni means that some of the teeth-clenching scenes, such as the memorable ice rink dispute, become almost too onerous to watch. I physically recoiled and gasped during that scene, as I did with a few others, but not because it was necessarily explicit or over-the-top in its depictions. Rather, it just added to the verisimilitude of the film.
There is a particular sequence of shots that irked me, near the beginning during Benni’s first on-screen tumultuous breakdown; as she reaches that breaking point, shots of wild wolves are spliced between disorderly and frantic shots of Benni. This was clearly done to give a visual indication of the extremities of her mental state in those moments and how she outwardly deals with the situation, i.e. she acts ‘animalistic’ and ‘feral’. Yet it almost felt slightly disrespectful to the portrayal of a child’s broken psyche. Plus the fact that these shots of the wolves didn’t really happen again at any point during the film, so the sparsity of them felt like a weak artistic attempt at a visual representation of a breakdown. However, I appreciated them much more after watching the final moments of the film. Benni runs away into the forest after a clash with Mica and his family, and there’s no clear sense of time passing as she sleeps and walks about alone. Her sleepy wanderings take her into the presence of a wolf, and these almost dream-like experiences are mixed with shots of Benni being held lovingly by her mother, and by Mica. She is lost, mentally and physically, and this sequence shows what Benni ultimately wants and needs. There’s an understanding in the basic instincts that Benni feels, to have that connection with a parent that her mother couldn’t permanently give her so she sought out in Mica. It’s essentially a realisation for the viewer that her natural impulses and urges are driven by her innate need for emotional connection with another person, just like everybody else has, only for Benni it processes differently. It’s an interesting visual interpretation to make, and understandable in hindsight, but the actual technical execution of it should’ve been as strong as the rest of the film.
This small issue doesn’t detract from the overall film, however, and all other aspects of System Crasher are strong. It manages to evoke a bit of thought and questioning about the foster care system and the handling of boundaries between child and adult. The tenderness between characters feels real, the acting is admirable (in Zengel’s case, award-worthy), and this is overall a grippingly-poignant film.