'System Crasher' ('Systemsprenger'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of kineo Films and Weydemann Bros.
A case study of childhood violence, without an ending.

Helena Zengel strikes back as a violent, unwanted 9-year-old in Nora Fingscheidt’s psychological drama.

Like the flip side of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s haunting Loveless, in which warring parents cause their small, largely forgotten son to run away from home, German writer-director Nora Fingscheidt's new film revolves around a girl from a broken home unable to contain her fury at the world. In the lead role, young Helena Zengel is mightily impressive, showing the natural depth of a born actress as she pours her energy into System Crasher (Systemsprenger). But there is little else to hook adult viewers in this well-made psychological drama. It would have looked far more comfortable in the Generation sidebar than in Berlin competition.

There’s more prose than poetry in this familiar tale, which ought to play well on TV. Benni, a pale blond tomboy going on ten, gets into a fearful ruckus in the schoolyard in the first prophetic scene, attacking the other kids with her fists and feet at the slightest provocation. She has a stentorian battle cry that would send shivers down a Viking’s spine. Her mad dog antics get her kicked out of school and returned to a half-way house while her kindly case worker Mrs. Bafane (a professional-emotional Gabriela Maria Schmeide) desperately looks for a group home willing to take her in. Unfortunately, her bad reputation precedes her.

Not that Benni doesn’t have a mother who loves her (played by the convincingly fragile Lisa Hagmeister.) It’s just that Mom has a childish personality, no job and an angry live-in lover at odds with Benni. She also fears the girl’s violence will spread to her younger kids (there are signs that it already has.)

One day, Micha (Albrecht Schuch) appears on the scene. Benni calls the tough-looking young man “educator” but he insists he’s just her school escort. Only she doesn’t want to go to school. He’s actually soft-spoken and a little downtrodden, and although his backstory is never told, he seems to have conquered anger management issues of his own. His heart reaches out to her after each fresh outburst as he watches her being taken away by social workers, hospital personnel and the police, strapped to stretchers screaming, staring forlornly at him through the viewing windows of “time out rooms” and from hospital beds. With all doors closed to the girl, he volunteers to take her to his remote cabin in the woods for a therapeutic weekend of nature and peace, which will turn on plenty of red lights in the audience’s mind.

Though at first Micha seems set up to rescue the little girl, the screenplay veers from this easy course. He confesses he has “rescue fantasies” to Mrs. Bafane as a way of saying he has lost his professional distance from the girl. Then a place opens up in a foster home where she has lived happily before, and it seems that there is light at the end of the tunnel – fat chance. As the story approaches two hours, no closure seems possible outside tragedy and defeat. Instead, Fingscheidt’s exuberant non-ending sends a puzzling and contradictory message.

The talented Zengel, who starred in Mascha Schilinski’s prize-winning family drama The Daughter last year, has startling maturity as an actress while playing childish. It’s the realism she brings to Benni’s warped personality, starved for love and security, that gives the film its most intense and affecting scenes. She is more than a match for the well-meaning and extraordinarily patient doctors, psychologists and case workers who surround her, and her screaming certainly does grate on the nerves.

In one telling scene, she flies off the handle when she finds her way barred by a barking dog. It’s enough to set off her violent response, and she curses it and pelts it with rocks. At other times, the reactions of small children who oppose her willfulness show how dangerous she can be. Her intrusion into Micha’s private life sets off more warning bells, especially when she slips into his bed while he’s sleeping.

As the negative evidence piles up and no treatment seems to work on her, the film takes on a melancholy tone echoed in the cold, rain-drenched landscape of the German countryside. Yunus Roy Imer’s cinematography is generally clean and realistic, but creates some intriguing moments to represent Benni’s memories as blurred colors and faces. Her mother has told the case workers that she was suffocated by a diaper being held over her face when she was a baby, and that is the origin story of her far-reaching trauma. Whether there was more to it than that – a rape, for example -- is not spelled out.

Well-paced editing by Stephan Bechinger and Julia Kovalenko keeps things from feeling repetitious and reserves some surprises.

Production companies: Kineo Filmproduktion, Weydemann Bros.
Cast: Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Lisa Hagmeister, Melanie Straub, Victoria Trauttmansdorff, Maryam Zaree, Tedros Teclebrhan
Director, screenwriter: Nora Fingscheidt
Producers:  Peter Hartwigm Jonas Weydemann, Jakob D. Weydemann
Director of photography: Yunus Roy Imer
Production designer: Marie-Luise Balzer
Costume designer: Ule Barcelos
Editors: Stephan Bechinger, Julia Kovalenko
Music: John Gurtler
Casting director: Lisa Stutzky, Jacqueline Rietz
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Beta Cinema
124 minutes