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Berlinale Bloggers 2019
In revolt against the system

"Systemsprenger": Helena Zengel
"Systemsprenger": Helena Zengel | Photo (Detail): © Peter Hartwig / kineo / Weydemann Bros. / Yunus Roy Imer

What might the German-language films “Systemsprenger” ( i.e. System Crasher) and “Der Boden unter den Füssen” (i.e. The Ground Beneath My Feet) have in common?

By Philipp Bühler

It’s a typical phenomenon at film festivals: on the face of it, two films seem to have nothing to do with each other – and yet it seems as though their titles could be switched.
In adolescent psychology, kids who defy integration into any pedagogical system are colloquially referred to in German as Systemsprenger, literally “system crashers”. In Nora Fingscheidt's poignant drama, nine-year-old Benni is a “system crasher” and a holy terror. She fights, kicks, screams and gets thrown out of every children’s home and foster family she is sent to.

Der Boden unter den Füssen (i.e. The Ground Beneath My Feet), an Austrian film by Marie Kreutzer, is, in contrast, cool and detached. We see business consultant Lola, who seems calm, composed and under control at all times, steering a steady course down the road to success. But even her seemingly unflappable system threatens to crash when Conny, her older sister who is mentally ill and kept hidden away from the world, attempts suicide.

Good system, bad system?

In the broadest sense of the word, both entries in the competition could be said to be about family. Benni, marked by early childhood trauma, longs to return to her mother, who was just as overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising her own child then as the youth welfare workers are now. Likewise, Lola has always felt burdened by the responsibility of looking after her volatile sister after their parents’ death. But the parallels appear to stop there. While Systemsprenger celebrates its child heroine’s raw energy and clearly pities the adults around her struggling to control that energy, Der Boden unter den Füßen shows merely the cold detachment of a system that rates people according to their economic value and ruthlessly destroys personal ties.

Helpless anger management

And yet, at a time when governments are desperately scrambling to curb public anger, and concepts like “the system” and “revolt” are back in vogue – and with a vengeance –, we can’t help seeing some films through a different lens. Both of these films represent a relatively new kind of cinema that views people mainly as patients. How can we help them? What does it say about a system when people can’t find support or security in it anymore? These films wisely refrain from proposing any neat or facile solutions. But that leaves us all feeling rather helpless, so they’re the sort of film that probably works best at a film festival. Sometimes you can’t help feeling the system of cinema is stretched to its limits here too.