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 System Crasher Reveals the Heartbreak of a Problem Child

December 17, 2019 | By Xandie Kuenning

As part of the monthly film series organized by Goethe-Institut Boston, German director Nora Fingscheidt’s first feature film System Crasher (Systemsprenger) was screened at Coolidge Corner Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 24. The film originally premiered at the Berlinale in early 2019, where it won the Silver Bear, and is Germany’s official entry to the 2020 Academy Awards. 

Photos Courtesy of Port au Prince Pictures

The film follows Benni (Helena Zengel), an aggressive and volatile nine-year-old who has been labeled a “system crasher,” a term used to describe problem children who refuse to accept any kind of structure, leading them to be kicked out of everywhere they go. Benni’s only goal is to be reunited with her mother Bianca (Lisa Hagmeister), but Bianca is completely overwhelmed by Benni and fears the impact her daughter could have on her other two children. Only Benni’s welfare officer Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) and school escort Micha (Albrecht Schuch) continue to believe in Benni, even though every group home in the area refuses to take her in and, due to her young age, no closed psychiatric ward will accept her. In a last-ditch attempt to get through to the young girl, Micha arranges for them to spend three weeks together in nature, bringing both of them to their limits. However, as Benni becomes more attached to Micha, he realizes he is losing his professional distance. And when Bianca falls through once again, everything comes to a head.

Fingscheidt first learned about system crashers while working on a documentary about a homeless women’s shelter in Stuttgart. During filming, she saw a 14-year-old girl move into the shelter, and learned that this was a common path for system crashers. Over the next six years, she conducted research into the topic, including living with a residential group, working in a child welfare placement center and a child psychiatry office, and interviewing numerous employees of these agencies, in addition to child and youth psychologists. Realizing that a documentary would be too traumatic for all those involved, Fingscheidt instead decided to make a feature film. She also lowered the age of the main character in order to avoid clichés, such as that of adolescent rebellion.

Photos Courtesy of Port au Prince Pictures

However, while the audience is aware this is a fictional film, that does not stop the story from being any less heartbreaking. Due to its intense subject matter, the film is very hard to watch, and seeing Benni lose control to her rage — leading her to get into fights, physically harm herself, and threaten others in the hopes that they will love her — brings up a lot of emotions, namely frustration, towards the social care system. By the end of the film, it seemed as if everyone in the audience had been brought to tears at least once.

In an interesting choice of direction, Fingscheidt decided to use abstract motifs when portraying Benni’s fits of anger. Instead of showing the ensuing fight, the screen would turn red before showing a series of fractured scenes — including Bianca holding Benni as a baby and barn owls flying freely in the forest. These flights of fancy seemed a bit out of place when compared to the heavy realism found throughout the rest of the film, but they were intriguing to examine as a product of Benni’s mind. Fingscheidt also left the ending of the film open to interpretation, a move that shocked most of the audience.

While certainly a hard film to watch, it is also very rewarding. It will engage you in a way many films today fail to do and will leave you thinking about certain scenes over and over again. Just make sure you give yourself some space afterward because it will leave you emotionally drained.