System Crasher – Film review

Crashing around the screen with boundless angry energy is Benni the protagonist of System Crasher. The title of the film could not be more apt as she is literally bounced from one location to another. However, these locations are care facilities within Germany from which Benni is rejected as she is the ‘system crasher’ who falls outside of the system designed to protect such traumatised children.

Prepare yourself for an intense, unflinching examination of Benni’s world as she lurches from one extreme to another unfurling an immense rage. System Crasher maintains the same kinetic, frenzied pace as its protagonist, with handheld camera shots, and is uncompromising in its outlook with virtually no downtime. System Crasher is all about Benni, played with an enormous zeal by Helena Zengel who entices, shocks and terrifies in equal measure. Zengel displays a tremendous acting range whether hurling chairs at a shatter proof window, screaming at adults at full voice or tenderly stroking a baby; it is a demanding role and hers is a convincingly brilliant tour de force performance that will linger in your consciousness for some time thereafter.

Strikingly wearing pink, as a recurring motif, there is an innocence to Benni which appeals to most of the adults who sympathise with her plight prior to being on the receiving end of her fury. The sense of abandonment is obvious and seems to underpin Benni’s behaviour as she longs to be re-united with her mother who lives elsewhere in Hanover with a new family seemingly unable to cope with Benni and admitted to being scared of her.

Helena Zengel as Benni in System Crasher
Helena Zengel as Benni in System Crasher

Benni is clearly traumatised although System Crasher does not reveal the exact source of the trauma, there are some hints however of a childhood incident which continues to trigger a violent reaction in Benni. In the opening scenes of System Crasher, Benni is within a hospital bed and connected to machines with apparent bruises and discussions of treatments; Benni had already been suspended from school which is yet another institution that rejects her due to being unable to care for her needs adequately. We learn throughout the course of the film that Benni at 9 years old had been rejected from 52 institutions being foster families, residential units, emergency centres but she is sadly unable to modify her behaviour.

System Crasher delves into this aspect of child behavioural psychology with a raw depiction of mental illness. There are elements of System Crasher that are reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy and indeed Psychobitch by Martin Lund in providing an authentic, heart wrenching, examination of the connection between violence, uncontrollable behaviour and mental illness in certain children and teenagers. There is always that question as to the best method to address the needs of such children and teenagers. Within System Crasher, many options are proposed but by virtue of Benni’s age there is a lack of suitability. Fortunately, some of the sympathetic care workers, such as Mrs Bafané and the school escort, Micha, assigned to Benni as an anger management specialist, assist but what happens to such children without such supportive figures in their lives?

System Crasher is a term created by the psychologist Menno Baumann in a book and was consulted by director Nora Fingscheidt who visited various child protection institutions of this nature. The film is Fingscheidt’s first fictional feature and it has received critical acclaim winning the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize at the 2019 Berlinale and understandably has been the recipient of other awards.

Benni in hospital in System Crasher
Benni in hospital in System Crasher

There is a dreamlike quality to System Crasher as Benni pines for her mother and to be living with her siblings once more and scenes are intercut with hazy, out of focus images of Benni’s mother. The cinematography also captures pristine, snowy conditions which aligns with the stark white, sterile nature of the surroundings within the various hospitals that Benni visits. Some of the panoramic wintry outdoor images are simply stunning particularly in the moments where Benni pauses, literally, and there is an aura of vulnerability present in Benni whilst surrounded by such breathtaking scenery with naturalistic lighting.

A constant sense of dread in System Crasher is skilfully ramped up by Fingscheidt given the unpredictable volatility that Benni is partial to and the accompanying non-diegetic frenetic music amplifies such sensations. It is very effective, and these elements certainly create a tense experience for the majority of System Crasher’s running time. That is not to say that there are no light-hearted moments within System Crasher. It is joyous to watch the camaraderie between Benni and Micha and to watch Benni forming attachments with some children and adults. System Crasher however always provides the impression that such positive moments with Benni will be short-lived.

Helena Zengel and Albrecht Schuch as Benni and Micha in System Crasher
Helena Zengel and Albrecht Schuch as Benni and Micha in System Crasher

System Crasher unveils an emotionally charged, visceral tale from a child’s perspective which is wholly convincing and gripping but will fray your nerves. We are drawn into a world of absolutes via the protagonist Benni as the ‘system crasher’ who can be angelic and frightening whilst navigating her way through her anger. System Crasher is a very impressive, relentless film providing a unique perspective of those children that are failed by the system. System Crasher will make you gasp and will leave you breathless but ultimately at its core lies the impact of a mother’s love on a child.

System Crasher will be released in the UK on VoD on 27 March 2020

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