Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher is a film of the most brutal kind. No, there are no bloody massacres, no war zones, no zombie apocalypse or aliens invading or destroying Earth, coming across the film’s hero in a violent finale. System Crasher is brutal because it touches on our deepest human emotions and the dire need to protect children from trauma at all costs. Fingscheidt’s protagonist is 9 year old Benni (Helena Zengel) whose violent outbursts – both physical and verbal – push everyone around her not only close to their boundaries but also beyond. Rooted in a traumatic childhood that from its earliest moments was marked by psychological and physical abuse, Benni’s violent transgressions are directed at all and everyone around her – from her mother, with whom she can’t live with, to doctors to social services workers, while at the same time longing for just these people, or just someone in general, to love her.
Benni is an example of how we like to put people in categories. She is a “Systemsprenger”, a “system crasher” – a term used in German social services to describe children who have gone through all channels to find a home or a care facility but have defied all attempts. Fingscheidt therefore focuses in her film on a repetitive depiction of how Benni moves from one care facility to another: from residential care, to psychotherapy, to foster home, to anger management courses. It’s a chain of events that is also a never-ending circle. All attempts at making her feel at home have failed – too engrained are her traumatic experiences and too little room is left in the German social service system for a 9 year old who is felt to be too violent to live with her mother, too young to be properly psychologically evaluated, but one day no longer young enough to not end up in the “looney bin”.
Benni’s story is devastating – more so because Fingscheidt doesn’t explicitly spell out what happened to Benni that her trauma has taken over her life as much as it has. We can only guess what happened to Benni at the hands of her mother’s boyfriends, or her mother, or maybe her father. Therefore, Fingscheidt, except for a short scene of a violent encounter between Benni and her mother’s on-and-off boyfriend, doesn’t give us a villain, whom we can hate for making Benni how she is today – and that, for all that it is worth, makes it even worse. While we are invited to hate on Benni’s mother for neglecting her daughter, we also see a mother who shows her child love and care and whose own pain as a potential victim of abuse is as palpable as Benni’s. Benni’s years of suffering abuse are very probably interconnected with her mother suffering just the same.
Then, there are social service workers who are very ready to help, act with patience and care but they are also very much aware that they cannot get too emotionally attached, need to keep a distance and therefore cannot stand in as a parent or a caretaker. When they do as depicted in the characters of Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) and Micha Heller (Albert Schuch), they can’t avoid to crash hard.
Micha in particular, tries all and everything to get Benni back on track – even taking her on a multi-day trip into the woods where there is no internet, no further company and no other external influences that usually cause the young girl’s violent outbursts. Just like the anger management trainer hopes for, the audience desperately wants Benni to realise that it is in her hands in which direction her life takes; that she can no longer allow trauma to control it to such an extent. While some moments during the trainer-trainee trip verge on promising that Micha’s and the audiences’ expectations will be fulfilled, Benni becomes attached to her caretaker, and vice versa, in a way that can no longer guarantee a kind of distance that is required in social services. It is in such moments, in which Benni asks for Micha’s presence in her life that goes far beyond than that of a caretaker and he no longer can keep a professional distance, that Zengel’s and Schuch’s already great lead performances become elevated. We do not need to know in words that these characters are in pain, for we hear it in Zengel’s shattering screams and Schuch’s face marked by sadness; the ultimate gut-wrenching moment being Benni calling Micha “Papa” and him opposing to it with all his strength, is as heartbreaking as it gets.
System Crasher is a film that shows the limits of a social services system, when coming across someone in dire need of a person to take care of them and them alone – to show them not only patience and care, but love too. However, the grim reality is that social services – and this not only applies to Germany – are understaffed, under-subsidised, and underpaid. The list goes on.
Fingscheidt’s film is noise, pain, and anger. It is brutal to watch Benni suffer and those around her suffer because of her. The chain of abuse in System Crasher feels all too real and it is never-ending. Eventually, all of this feels especially brutal because there is a child at the narrative’s center – unable to escape how trauma is given from one person to another.