Combustible, if predictable, Nora Fingscheidt anchors her debut in one truly nerve-shredding child performance

Patrick Preziosi on Nora Fingscheidt’s ‘System Crasher’ (2020)

As dubious a proposition it is, rooting a film’s social concerns in a singular “problem child” maintains itself as a surefire way to get those critics on the international film festival circuit to slaver and heap praise, sealed since Truffaut stormed Cannes in 1959 with The 400 Blows / Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959). That isn’t to knock a proven affecting cinematic narrative form — a formula which has paid dividends to the likes of the Dardennes over the years — but to be frank in stating that the success of such movies does not guarantee objective quality. Those that are crowned with the loudest laudatory exclamations tend to almost always be the most treacly or the most exploitive; think the recent, controversial success of Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (2018), which checks off both those categories.

Writer-director Nora Fingscheidt, for better or worse, sees this as a reliable and sturdy tradition to draw from, although she also seems eager to inject her film System Crasher with a welcome dose of visual and auditory abstraction. The first of these ruptures is jarring to say the least, after our scrappy (as in: ready to fight, swear, shoplift, insult, alienate) 9-year old protagonist, Benni (Helena Zengel), moves violently from a children’s psychiatric unit, back to a group home, and then onto the streets of some German suburb. While at an underpass, a group of similarly aged boys harass her, and the screen is suddenly interrupted by slashes of bright blue and pinks flares, quick snatches of what appear to be Benni locked unwillingly in a closet, and a snarling set of wolfish jaws occasionally punctuating everything.

Then, Benni wakes up. She’s just wet the bed in the home of Mrs. Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), a kindly child protective services who has remained committed to Benni, even as she’s exhausted 20-plus group homes. Benni’s referred to as a “system crasher”, a child who’s volatile and even dangerous behaviours put the bureaucracy of Child Protective Services at a loss. Fingscheidt admirably presents the central contradiction within these systems with little extraneous material: the institution supposedly up to the task of helping such children can only do so if these children remain consistently docile, remaining oblivious to the circumstances that elicit the unsettling hysterics that explode from within Benni.

There’s trauma present within Benni that the adults surrounding her can’t seem to properly address. She’s a sweet girl with an ever-devolving troublemaking streak, and not vice versa, as displayed by her genuine affection for Mrs. Bafané, her siblings, and her mother, Bianca (Lisa Hagmeister), who seems truly at a loss of how to handle her daughter. An early scene jumps from comforting domesticity (Benni watches TV with her siblings, supplying them with snacks) to truly harrowing when Bianca returns home with a boyfriend Benni is less than fond of. Trying to reconcile the two does little, and Benni inflicts a pretty nasty headblow upon her mother with a nearby vase. Such scenes are established as a parallel strand to System Crasher’s present, contextualising material that furnishes the last-ditch effort of securing a stable environment for Benni central to the film.

There’s a formal impatience manifest throughout, as Fingscheidt’s intent of dismantling inept social structures clashes with her desire to also fashion a potent coming of age character study. Thankfully, the character of Benni — portrayed rather remarkably in all her fitful anger and tenderness by Zengel — acts as something of a thematic and emotional glue when the script falls flat. Zengel is fully game to shriek and curse, to fling toys and inflict self-harm upon her character, frequently pulling System Crasher back from the precipice of cloying shlock. When taken to the woods by her stoically empathetic school escort, Michael (Albrecht Shuch), as a last-ditch effort at instilling a much-needed sense of self-control, she repeatedly screams “Momma” into an echoey canyon. It’s saccharine at first blush, but Benni continues, her voice breaking and growing more hoarse with each yell; it’s a moment bound to put a lump in the throats of some.

There’s still a good chunk of the film left when Michael and Benni return from the woods, and even as it may be spinning its wheels by this point, Fingscheidt attempts to see System Crasher’s thesis through to the very end. The director’s propensity for the exclusive use of handheld would put her in conversation with some of the other emergent talents out of Germany, such as Valeska Grisebach (2017’s Western) and Maren Ade (2016’s Toni Erdmann), though Fingscheidt occasionally lacks the compositional wherewithal to make any sequence truly stand out. That being said, as a director of performers, she’s already smoothly inserted herself into a growing tradition of realism defined by unvarnished rawness.

Available to stream as a Curzon Home Video exclusive 27 March 2020.

You can read our interview with director Nora Fingscheidt here.

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.