System crasher: a foster child who has repeatedly broken every given rule until the system built to support them runs out of options. Until they become un-fosterable, too young to be put in closed care, but too much of a danger to be taken in by those caring for other children. Benni (Helena Zengel) is one such girl.
Foul-mouthed, ill-behaved and relentlessly violent towards most everyone she encounters, Benni finds herself shipped between short-term housing and psychiatric care, never allowed the consistency and stability that she needs. Try as her (mostly) well-meaning carers do to set her on a better path, each attempt falls flat before she’s once again pumped with drugs to calm her outbursts. And so the cycle repeats. At its forefront, System Crasher (Systemsprenger) acts as an indictment of Germany’s flawed child welfare services, one that’s both raw and unflinching.
Fundamental to the film’s success is the extraordinary Helena Zengel, who does a remarkable job of channelling Benni’s rage at the world around her. More importantly, perhaps, is how she subtly portrays the truth at the heart of Benni: she just wants to be loved. And it’s that which makes her plight so heartbreaking, and that makes it impossible not to be invested in her fate. She’s a victim of abuse, trapped in a self-destructive spiral from which she can’t escape. The camera reflects her view of the world around her, drained of vibrancy, tightly focused, boxing her in the frame. False dawns from false saviours – including from her “cow” of a mother – bring her a momentary reprieve from reality, which is when her sparks of heart and humour burn brightest. Here the depth of focus broadens, the camera freewheels and Benni’s universe is injected with a punch of colour. But these moments are fleeting.
The few scenes without Zengel miss her bite, predominantly serving just to reinforce the system’s inability to help Benni sufficiently, ground much covered by the film already. And there’s a hint of repetitiveness to events, largely owing to Benni’s own nature, reflecting the cycle she continually falls into. A frustratingly endless circle born from a failed system. A bitter pill to swallow though System Crasher may be at times, it should be applauded for its steadfast focus on the issues at its core. This is powerful cinema bolstered by an astonishing central performance.
Rating (out of 5):