The bobby-cars are having a bad day. One by one, they are hurled at the shatterproof glass door, which separates the grey and sparse courtyard of the youth detention centre from the inside of the building. Even though the door withstands, it isn’t over yet. With a loud groan, nine-year-old Benni runs to crash one of the toy vehicles into the door. A little CGI crack shows in the glass, just as the neon-pink title-card foreshadows that this is so much more than just about a broken door.
Some films make you emotional, some render you contemplative, while others fill you up with a creeping sensation of hope or despair. But only few manage to completely sweep you off your feet by offering a nuanced, empathetic portrayal of trauma and mental illness. In this respect, the recent German arthouse film System Crasher arrives like a furious marathon runner with a megaphone. A more apt description of is “wucht”, the German synonym to “stunner.”
We follow Benni, who suffers from severe trauma and mental illness at an early age, which directly results in her inability to handle her frustrations and fears. These frustrations often manifest in extremely aggressive behaviour that even the staff of the social facility are unable to handle. As such, she is permanently surrounded by helpless professionals, who hopelessly try to figure out how to treat her until she is old enough to be admitted into a locked psychiatric ward. Facility after facility, it seems that it is only a matter of time until there are no new options left for Benni. Despite all her love, her mother is completely overwhelmed by Benni. She distances herself by scarcely visiting her daughter. Benni desperately yearns to reunite with her. In this desperation, she gets increasingly insecure and her aggressive behaviour manifests even more strongly.
Eventually, she gets assigned to a school escort, so she can gradually reintegrate into at least one part of a regular child’s life. It’s a desperate and failing attempt at getting things into order, but Benni quickly bonds with the young man. He starts to get invested in the over-emotional, smart, and deeply desperate girl. His character—a recovered victim of aggression disorders himself—reflects the audience’s point of view of Benni. He sees her many hidden facets: her sadness, her helplessness, her infectious liveliness, and her potential. In a way, so do we.
It’s hard to believe that System Crasher is Nora Fingscheidt’s debut feature, since it manages to channel all its emotional turmoil, albeit framed by a rather loose, meandering narrative, into a cohesive whole. This is mostly the result of an outstanding screenplay that converses with its characters with understanding, and displays an intricate knowledge of the system in which Benni is treated as an anomaly.
Treated as an anomaly, some people can’t handle Bennie at all, and others don’t even try to anymore. But the people who truly are invested in her, like the social worker assigned to her case, are like family to her. Sadly, they have to refrain from getting too close to her — sincere empathy and concern clashes with self-preservation. It’s a highly sensitive topic handled with the utmost honesty and a keen eye for nuance.
Fingscheidt’s direction is direct and raw. Captured by cinematographer Yunus Roy Imer, the camera sticks close to faces and bodies amidst the backdrop of dim daylight scenarios, while consistently keeping up with the vigour that this rambunctious narrative demands. Nevertheless, the emotionally affecting film would not be possible without its incredible cast, led by a roaring, anxious, and breathtaking lead performance by Helena Zengel, who plays Benni with such relentless exuberance. We cannot help but feel sympathy for Benni while knowing that we are utterly helpless to offer any assistance.
Nevertheless, Zengel also maintains a strong authenticity towards the experiences that Benni faces. This reflects an honesty that Fingscheidt’s film equally embraces. Despite dramatising the harsh trauma Benni endures, System Crasher never crosses the border into sentimental exploitation. Instead, it carries a rare gift of empathy which just might let us view people who are not recognised by the system as irrevocably human and always deserving of our kindness.
The film offer no clear solutions to Benni’s predicament. Instead, it is an emotionally charged space that is filled with both an endless vitality and the depressing totality of the systemic problems which structure Benni’s life. Her journey is not a problem that “system crashers”, caretakers, doctors and adoptive parents are responsible for. Instead, it is a problem that fails to be adequately addressed by an often dehumanising political system. System Crasher is an unmissable, stark, and unforgettable film which offers empathy to the individuals harmed by it.