German drama System Crasher opens with a nine-year-old girl, Benni (Helena Zengel), in a hospital undergoing some sort of treatment. She’s given some pills to take to control her anger and treated very carefully by the hospital and then school staff, almost as if she’s an unexploded bomb and could go off at any moment with devastating consequences. But how bad can she be? Is all of this justified?
As it turns out, yes. Benni is a “system crasher” – a problem child whose outbursts are so frequent and violent that no foster parent or group home is able to hold on to her for more than a few months. She’s prone to horrifying meltdowns in which she unleashes blood-curdling yells and lashes out at anyone within the range of her flailing fists, foul mouth, and destructive rage. Deep-seated childhood trauma means she can’t bear her face being touched by anyone except her mother (Lisa Hagmeister), who she believes will one day accept full-time custody of her again.
Much of this movie, meticulously researched by writer-director Nora Fingscheidt to shine a light on the shortcomings of the care system, rests entirely on the shoulders of its young star. Zengel is in almost every scene of the film and given the task of delicately balancing humanity and monstrosity to construct a Jekyll and Hyde character of epic proportions. Even when Benni finds solace in the efforts of social worker Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) or school escort Micha (Albrecht Schuch), the barely restrained aggression always seems ready to burst through her angelic visage and cherubic blonde hair.
Zengel communicates Benni – short for Bernadette, which she thinks is “so prissy” – as a ball of broiling potential energy and, thanks to this, the entire film is imbued with a knife-edge tension. Even the most comfortable scene of familial bliss is only ever a hair’s breadth from becoming a grotesque nightmare in which Benni ends up brandishing a knife or splattering an ice rink with blood. Fingscheidt’s direction gently amplifies this tension, constructing scenes in which the potential for carnage escalates into legitimate horror – even when nothing bad actually happens.
Crucially, System Crasher never loses sight of the fact its protagonist is a fragile child. Scenes in which she sings a dreadful improvised song to her mother down the phone or climbs into bed for a much-needed cuddle feel stark and unusual, but serve as a crucial reminder that, beneath the rage, there’s someone simply desperate to be loved. Her prickly, brotherly relationship with Schuch’s Micha is heart-warming and essential to her development, but there’s a bittersweet feel to everything Schuch does, as he knows as well as the audience does that this bond can only be temporary.
And that’s the creeping power of System Crasher. While Benni always believes that she will ultimately end up with her mother, every facet of Lisa Hagmeister’s performance suggests that she is utterly terrified of her daughter and does not want her near her siblings. Fingscheidt’s script largely keeps the audience within Benni’s narrow perspective, but the nuance of the performances allows us to read between the lines and see the stark, sad reality of what isn’t being said.
System Crasher is often a movie as loud and oppressive as its protagonist, but it’s also one that is keen to see the humanity and the good in all of its characters – occasionally to its detriment – no matter how questionable their actions are. It’s a complex and emotionally powerful drama, powered by a maelstrom of a central performance from a young actor who, if this is anything to go by, has a terrific career ahead of her.
Dir: Nora Fingscheidt
Scr: Nora Fingscheidt
Cast: Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Lisa Hagmeister, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Melanie Straub
Prd: Peter Hartwig, Jakob Weydemann, Jonas Weydemann
DOP: Yunus Roy Imer
Music: John Gürtler
Run time: 125 mins
System Crasher is available on VOD in the UK via Curzon Home Cinema from 27th March.