Directed by Nora Fingscheidt, System Crasher (Systemsprenger) features a tremendous central performance from Helena Zengel, along with superb use of editing and colour. Although the tone is occasionally muddled, the film manages to be both viscerally engrossing and heartbreaking.
Zengel portrays Benni, a child who is so difficult to deal with that she is classified as a “system crasher,” bouncing between various short-term emergency homes. Part of Benni’s issue is an uncontrollable rage that takes over when she is triggered, most commonly through bullying or her face being touched. However, Benni’s school chaperone, Micha (Albrecht Schuch), thinks he can help by taking her into the woods for three weeks. A bond forms between the two, and Micha’s professional objectivity is compromised as he comes to care for the child. On their return, attempts are made to reunite Benni with her mother and two siblings.
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The explosive rage that overtakes Benni is handled wonderfully by both Zengel on the acting front and Fingscheidt on the technical side. The director communicates the triggers using hard cuts and saturated pink light, forming a colour theme with Benni’s jacket, always separating her from peers and surroundings. This formal structure begets a pattern the audience becomes familiar with, and Fingshciedt’s script subtly ramps up the potential consequences of Benni’s behaviour (a chipped window, fights with other children, endangered infants). This element progresses a story that would otherwise have a reasonably flat trajectory.
Tonally, System Crasher manages to avoid throwing blame around, and evokes empathy for just about everyone depicted. Micha is shown to be the patient influence Benni needs (despite perhaps slightly naïve), and Mrs. Bafane (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) symbolizes the caring but hamstrung side of the care system. The least sympathetic portrayal is given to Benni’s mother, Bianca (Lisa Hagmeister), but even this is placed within the context of the enormously challenging task of caring for Benni.
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System Crasher fails to balance the tension created by Benni, who — in many ways — is a sweet young child. Several strange musical cues seem designed to convey this message but are jarring in the context of the escalating consequences. The film’s ending (without being specific) is emblematic of this, evidenced by the childlike glee and the undimmed hope of youth. However, given the focal situation, the formal choices may be viewed as misplaced optimism at best or a metaphorical head in the sand at worst. These clunkier elements are unfortunate, as there are moments that naturally present Benni’s more benign childlike instincts, such as peppering Micha with questions on their walk to school.
Overall, System Crasher’s missteps are minor. Fingscheidt elicits a performance from Zengel that is both heartbreaking and heartstopping. Despite some odd embellishments at times, the filmmaking choices elevate the script and produce a tense but emotionally engaging piece of cinema.
Jim Ross (@JimGR) is a film critic and film journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the Managing Editor and co-founder of TAKE ONE Magazine, which began as the official review publication of the Cambridge Film Festival and now covers film festivals and independent film worldwide. Jim hosted a fortnightly film radio show on Cambridge 105FM from 2011-2013 and joined the crew of Cinetopia, on Edinburgh community radio EH-FM, in 2019.