A troubled nine year-old girl poses a threat to herself and others in Nora Fingscheidt’s debut
Dir/scr. Nora Fingscheidt. Germany. 2019. 119mins
Problem kids seldom come as problematic as Benni, the nine-year-old hyperactive handful at the centre of German director Nora Fingscheidt’s first full-length feature. Benni is a “system crasher”, shuttled between care homes that aren’t set up to deal with her outbursts of violent rage. Suffused with sympathy but also a dose of bitter realism and shot with a freewheeling energy, System Crasher is an admirable distillation of a tough subject, but dramatically it’s Benni herself, rawly portrayed by Helena Zengel, who stays in the mind afterwards. The most interesting part of Fingscheidt’s debut drama is not what happens to Benni, but the way in which the audience is placed in the shoes of those who want the best for the girl – while never quite being able to trust her.
Sympathy and responsibility pull in opposite directions
This decision to let Benni dominate the evolution of the drama, as she dominates, manipulates and frustrates those who well-meaningly try to care for her, makes the film a sort of desperate declaration of love, as well as a painstakingly-researched tribute to those who – from foster parents to social service educators – do their best in difficult circumstances. Arriving in Berlin with script and development prizes (most recently the TitraFilm award at Les Arcs), System Crasher will be an interesting sales challenge: a tough drama about a vulnerable child without the genre spin of a Custody. Prospects in German-speaking territories seem solid; abroad, this is a tasty yet challenging urban arthouse prospect.
Lying bruised and cut on the bed of a clinic while a doctor runs tests on her, Benni at first seems a victim of domestic abuse, but soon enough, when we see her flying off the handle at the temporary care home where she’s been placed, we come to realise that her injuries are self-inflicted. These outbursts of violence clearly mask a desperate unhappiness that has a lot to do with her desire to go home to mum (Lisa Hagmeister). But mum, as we discover when Benni makes a break for freedom and persuades a stranger to driver her home, is a weak woman with two younger children, unable to detach herself from an abusive relationship.
The paradox of a problem like Benni is established early on: however good the people whose job it is to care for her – and most of them, like child services manager Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), are clearly doing their best in difficult circumstances – they have a duty to other children in their care. What do you do with a nine-year old, however vulnerable, when she starts lashing out with a knife in the care-home kitchen? A solution presents itself in the form of Micha (Albrecht Schucht), a tough social services operative more used to dealing with off-the-rails boys of sixteen and older. Micha has an off-grid house in the woods: if a stay here, chopping wood and communing with nature, can work for his adolescent screw-ups, why not for Benni too?
This rather conventional premise is run through some neat style filters that are more than superficial: working with DoP Yunus Roy Imer, composer John Gürtler and her two editors, the director alternately channels Benni’s chaotic energy (with high octane music, jump-cut editing and subjective camerawork) before suddenly moving to sequences that take a distance from the blonde time-bomb, whose pink jacket dominates the wintry landscape like a danger sign. It’s an effective mirror not only of this nine year-old’s mix of unrestrained childish impulses and old-beyond-her years fatalism, but also of the impossible dilemma that Benni represents – one where sympathy and responsibility pull in opposite directions.
Production companies: kineo Filmproduktion, Weydemann Bros
International sales: Beta Cinema, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Peter Hartwig, Jonas Weydemman, Jakob D. Weydemann
Production design: Marie-Luise Balzer
Editing: Stephan Bechinger, Julia Kovalenko
Cinematography: Yunus Roy Imer
Music: John Gürtler
Main cast: Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Lisa Hagmeister, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Melanie Straub