If there’s one word to describe the style of Nora Fingscheidt’s directorial debut it would have to be ‘schizophrenic’. Which for any other film might come across as a criticism. However, for telling the story of a wayward nine-year-old with severe anger management issues this high-energy, funhouse aesthetic proves to be the perfect platform.
Said nine-year-old is Benni (Helena Zengel) a victim of childhood trauma which now manifests with obnoxious, anti-social and even violent behaviour. She’s been passed along from foster parent to group home to shelter and is rapidly running out of places to be housed. And while it’s easy to sympathise the film never ignores Benni’s responsibility for the situation. She goes out of her way to aggravate all those around her; spitting out offensive language, mocking the disabled and even assaulting the very people closest to her. Yet, Zengel throws so much earnest anger, such childlike simplicity into the role that even as Benni commits the unforgivable it’s hard to turn against her.
Part of this lies in the fact that no one, save perhaps the resolute Mrs Bafane (Gabriela Schmeide) from child protective services, is faultless in this imperfect system of care. Benni’s mother Bianca (Lisa Hagermeister) is weak-willed, unreliable and largely terrified of her own daughter. Child services are exhausted; having put up with her behaviour for so long. And the various foster parents and group homes are (rightly) too concerned for the vulnerable children under their protection, each one a potential victim of Benni’s wrath. Even Micha (Albrecht Schuch), the anger management coach who is framed as the one person able to get through to Benni, constantly puts up barriers for fear of indulging in rescue fantasies. Crucially though none of them are bad people. The people in Benni’s life are simply human beings, trying as best they can to struggle through an impossible situation.
Perhaps the main reason we identify so well with Benni though is because Fingscheidt’s directorial style does everything possible to put us in the mindset of a hyperactive pre-teen. Benni’s world is one of bright neon colours and fast-paced music juxtaposed against a grey, muted adult world. Like an episode of Lazytown directed by Shane Meadows. It allows us to go with the flow in the same unrestrained manner as she does. Crucially it portrays her most severe episodes with a whiplash-inducing change in aesthetic. Presenting her violence less as a form of malice and more as a snap reaction which even she cannot control.
If there’s anything to hold against System Crasher its that its commitment to showing almost everything from Benni’s perspective is a double-edged sword. It’s fantastic for communicating her emotional headspace but less so for explaining the exact circumstances of each new environment. The various group homes, schools and shelters are all as fluid and as Benni’s emotional state. This however may simply be a case of the film being too clever for its own good. Of course, we’re supposed to struggle to keep track of each new home because that is the experience of being a ‘system crasher’, one who can neither live at home nor settle elsewhere.
For all its childlike merriment System Crasher is a mature look at child services in Germany. It knows that there will never be one thing that can change Benni for the better; not her mother, not Micha, not anything. So, we go with her on this mad ride; feeling her frustration, sadness and occasionally joy.