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Melbourne International Film Festival
System Crasher: A Pre-Teen Rebel With Multiple Causes

System Crasher
© System Crasher

In 2018 French standout Custody, a boy’s grasp on normality is shattered when he’s caught in the middle of a familial tug-of-war. In 2017 Russian drama Loveless, a 12-year-old goes missing as his separated parents fight about their new lives, including the fact that he doesn’t fit either’s vision for their fresh futures. Focusing on a wayward girl already in the care of child services, System Crasher represents Germany’s addition to the fold, building upon a growing group of films that filter the world’s ills through its youngest hearts and minds.

By Sarah Ward

This isn’t a new genre, with everything from The 400 Blows to Kes to Moonrise Kingdom previously deploying youthful protagonists as a weathervane; when kids struggle with life’s ups and downs, they reflect not just their own tussles, but society’s overarching chaos.

The plight of System Crasher’s Benni (Helena Zengel) fits the above mould, placing the spirited nine-year-old at the centre of conflicting forces. Her mother (Lisa Hagmeister) wants to bring the girl home yet simply can’t cope with her, especially with two younger children to look after, as well as a live-in boyfriend that Benni doesn’t take kindly to. The social workers charged with overseeing the child’s welfare all do the best that they can, although, after her years in the system, multiple placements and an increasing list of rejections from potential homes scared off by her difficult reputation, they’re painfully aware of their limitations. And so Benni bounces through a prevailing world order that has made her who she is — her violent tantrums, especially her hair-trigger temper that ignites if anyone dares touch her face, all stem from trauma — and yet has no solution for her.
System Crasher © System Crasher Marking the feature debut of writer/director Nora Fingscheidt, System Crasher charts Benni’s ebbs and flows as she approaches her tenth birthday; however her path resembles a circle more than a straight line forward. When the film introduces the pint-sized ball of angst, she’s receiving medical attention and being asked if she’s taking the pills that help keep her anger in check, all while a caregiver shakes his head forlornly. It’s a cycle that’ll repeat in different guises across the movie’s duration. At school, Benni instantly acts out whenever she doesn’t get her own way. In her various group homes, she thinks nothing of grabbing a knife if she’s unhappy with the status quo. And her scream — when she unleashes it, often accompanied by a flurry of punching, kicking limbs — is the very definition of piercing. As untoward incidents keep adding to her file, Benni’s case manager Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) has almost run out of options, until Micha (Albrecht Schucht) enters the picture. He’s assigned to escort the girl to school but, after a particularly disruptive outburst, he proposes three weeks of bonding and odd jobs in his cabin in the woods.

As empathetic as it is expressive

Openness, kindness and acceptance — not tough love, harsh discipline or slavish medicinal regimes — characterise System Crasher’s approach to Benni. That stricter tactics won’t tame her wily ways is never in doubt. Such a line of thinking may rankle some viewpoints, but it’s in fitting with Fingscheidt’s empathetic treatment of a child brimming with internal torment, as well as based on the filmmaker’s meticulous research. Accordingly, every stylistic choice aligns the audience with Benni, who, unsurprisingly, isn’t the easiest person to share a mindset with. Her journey isn’t the easiest to watch, either, nor should it be. Filled with frenetic spells that splash images and movement across the screen (and demonstrate the deft work of cinematographer Yunus Roy Imer, and editors Julia Kovalenko and Stephan Bechinger), System Crasher dives headfirst into the hectic nature of a life lived without an anchor, and the careening rollercoaster ride that inevitably follows.
Fingscheidt’s empathy cuts both ways, afforded not only to Benni but to those who wish her well. To tell the child’s story is to show the toll it takes not only on the blonde poppet, but on Bafané, Micha, and the other well-meaning adults and even oblivious kids in her orbit. Here, System Crasher belongs to the same breed of films as French duo Polisse and Les Miserables, even if her feature precedes the latter. The force that bears down on the woman who has witnessed all of Benni’s best and worst moments, to the point that it brings her to tears, is given palpable weight, as is the impact on the man so drawn into the girl’s plight that he crosses professional lines and puts his own family at risk. While the movie favours patient, still frames when peering on at its upset caregivers, it also conveys their inner state when it places Benni against Germany’s wintry backdrop. She appears almost as though she has caught alight, her pink jacket blazing with vibrancy against her bleak surroundings, and she’s always the focal point no matter the vastness lingering around her.

A standout lead performance

An involving film that immerses viewers in a complex scenario, System Crasher’s biggest success wears that electric-hued puffy coat, with Zengel an immensely impressive young talent. It’s with dexterity beyond her years that the child actor segues between Benni’s explosive fits of rage and moments of heartfelt sincerity — one with an energy that seems as if it’ll burn off the screen, the other with grace that never quite hides the haunting pain lingering behind her eyes. That balance, of course, is the movie’s overall. As the feature makes plain, it’s the world’s too. As fellow great films have done before it, System Crasher proves a powerful example of a child’s troubles speaking to society’s at large, even with its fanciful conclusion.