Directed by #NoraFingscheidt
Film review by Nathanial Eker
A narrative that revolves around a marginalised societal subsection will almost inevitably incite divisive argument and passionate discussion. You can double the impact of such emotive responses when the issue regard our most innocent subsection; children. Systemsprenger, or System Crasher is one such film, telling the tale of an often-overlooked and neglected group: unwanted problem children, or 'system crashers'. Director Nora Fingscheidt blends a realist aesthetic infused with occasional sporadic stylistics to tell a heart-breaking personal tale of cyclical abandonment and system failure.
Bernadette, or as she prefers ‘Benni’ is a nine-year-old force of nature. With the destructive energy of a hurricane and an explosive temper that manifests as violent outbursts, she’s certainly a handful. Her abusive upbringing has left both her and her utterly overwhelmed and depressed mother scarred, leading to her abandonment. Due to Benni’s psychotic episodes, she finds herself unable to integrate with her peers, even vitriolically shouting at adults with slurs that’d make Gordon Ramsey blush. Through the relentlessly repetitious cycle of care home to hospital to foster family, we find ourselves begging for respite, before the cruel hand of the German social care system plunges the knife of reality even deeper. In short, Benni’s situation is presented as upsettingly hopeless, with no light at the end of this troubled child’s tunnel.
Thus, a bleak tone lingers over the plot of System Crasher, supported by a reliance on a largely realist mise-en-scené. The camera exclusively sits with Benni, aligning us as her only consistent companion. Fingscheidt chooses her colours carefully; the pink outfits of Benni are tragically symbolic of her unreachable goal of being ‘normal’, in her eyes at least. Pink is maintained as a recurring theme throughout, as it envelops the screen at critical moments of personal horror for Benni, representing the severity of her anxiety attacks in the simplest, yet most effective way. These triggers also become devices for succinct semiotic drama, particularly when Benni interacts with other children. When the screen turns pink or the excellent percussion infused soundtrack kicks in, we’re conditioned like a Pavlovian dog to tense.
Concurrent to its powerful social message, the core appeal of System Crasher lies in the exceptional performance by the young Helena Zengel. That Zengel can portray issues of mental health with such a visceral believability at an age where most of us barely understood the concept, is a testament to the actor’s immense talent. Benni is all at once irritating, deplorable, yet kind, sweet, funny, endearing, and intensely sympathetic. She manages to simultaneously frustrate us and steal our hearts (as well as a few handbags). We even find ourselves guilty of initially dismissing her behaviour as mere brattishness, an excellent device by Fingscheidt that positions us in the same role as her many carers: sympathetic but with only a human level of patience.
Bizarrely, where System Crasher falls down is not in a particular moment or device, but rather, a notable narrative absence. The lack of any kind of acknowledgement of psychotherapy is a strange omission, considering the nature of Benni’s condition. It seems confusing to completely ignore this kind of treatment, and instead use the hospital as a metaphorical prison, complete with oppressive imagery. Perhaps this was an intentional choice by Fingscheidt and a subtle personal commentary that matters of childcare should be resolved as a community, without an over-reliance on science. As it stands, it seems more naïve omission than intentional commentary.
To review, System Crasher is a powerful assessment of the state of the German care system. Though the personification of ‘problem children’ through Benni is by no means catch all, the message is clear; there is rarely an easy solution. From unreliable adult promises to ‘saviour complexes’ to just bad luck, the plight of Benni is worryingly unending. We’re left wondering if she’ll ever get the care she needs, or whether she’ll move into adulthood completely ill prepared, simply from a deprivation of the one thing we as a species universally require: basic love and connection.