(Nora Fingscheidt, Germany, 2019) 125 minutes


Director: Nora Fingscheidt
Producer: Peter Hartwig, Jacob
  and Jonas Weydemann
Screenplay: Nora Fingscheidt
Cinematography: Yunus Roy Imer
Editors: Stephan Bechinger,
  Julia Kovalenko
Music: John Gürtler
Helena Zengel (Bernadette 'Benni' Klaass
Albrecht Schuch (Michael 'Micha' Heller)
Gabriela Maria Schmeide (Mrs Bafané)
Lisa Hagmeister (Bianca Klaass)
Melanie Straub (Dr Schönemann)
Victoria Trauttmansdorff (Silvia)
Maryam Zaree (Elli Heller)
Tedros Teclebrhan (Robert)

Reviews and notes

2019 Berlin, Hong Kong, Jeonju, Molodist, Transylvania, Shanghai, Taipei, Karlovy, Athens, Zurich, London, Gent, São Paulo, Mumbai, Minsk, Rio de Janeiro
2020 Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, Göteborg

An intensive drama about a pre-pubescent girl who actually crashes Germany’s child and welfare system whilst on her quest for love and security… When neon pink flashing images flood the screen, it’s a sign that nine-year-old Benni has lost all control. She screams, swears, hits out and spits. Though she can be extremely violent, the traumatised girl is also lovable, understanding, vulnerable and very smart. Tossed from one foster home to the next, she dreams of nothing more than being reunited with her overstrained mother. Nora Fingscheidt has created a deeply moving portrait of the vulnerability of childhood, asking where Benni belongs, who can help her and how she can be supported. Through the commitment of an excellent cast and with its powerful narrative of a young girl who has lost her place in society, Fingscheidt challenges conventional attitudes towards innocence, systems of support and, ultimately, the role of the welfare state.
- Juliane Grieb, London Film Festival 2019.

If you've already heard of System Crasher, it's probably because of 11-year-old Helena Zengel, who won Best Actress at Palm Springs this year and attracted quite a bit of awards notice elsewhere for her role as the disturbed pre-teen at the heart of Nora Fingscheidt's film. Everything that has been said about her is true. She's an extraordinary talent whose performance will keep you glued to the screen throughout, her character Benni sometimes frightening, sometimes tragic, always wild.

Can a child that age be frightening? Yes, when she's battering the head of another child off the nearest hard surface. Benni has a serious lack of inhibitions. She 'flips out', as she describes it, and for all that she knows it's a problem, she can't seem to make it stop. It's a problem for her, as well as for others, because it means that her mother Bianca (Lisa Hagmeister) can't cope with her, and so she's denied the one thing that she wants more than anything else - that consistent source of love. By the time we meet her she has been expelled from multiple group homes and spent numerous unhappy nights strapped to a bed in a psychiatric ward. Moving around from one place to another is clearly making her worse and her case worker Mrs Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) is now struggling to find anywhere that will take her on. But just when the situation seems hopeless, along comes Micha (Albrecht Schuch), a man used to dealing with aggressive teenage boys, with a plan that might just work.

On the one hand, System Crasher is a fierce critique of a system that routinely fails children with problems of this sort (a critique that can be applied far beyond Germany). On the other, it's a character study, inviting the audience to get inside the head of the sort of troubled kid that they might usually shun. Making her white, female, small and blond might make this easier, but Zengel goes out of her way to alienate everyone around her with violence, vivid language and vicious threats. At the same time, it's impossible not to see that she's a child in desperate need, seizing hold of anything that looks like it might turn into love. Her bursts of affection have an intense appeal like winning the trust of a wild animal. This, too, is a dangerous power, and both Micha and Mrs Bafané both find themselves at risk of becoming professionally compromised by it.

This isn't an easy watch but it's a compelling one. Whilst Benni's pain is raw and acutely distressing to witness - even when triggered by things which, to an adult, would seem trivial - the bursts of joy that she experiences when things are going her way are exhilarating. This energy is important to keeping viewers focused through a necessarily meandering story with a lot of false starts. Without overplaying the ugliness of life in the system or at any point invoking malice (apart from a disturbing incident in Benni's early childhood), the film demonstrates how damaging it can be, yet it also illustrates the absence of simple solutions and the risks involved in getting close to children whose need can easily become overwhelming.

As intelligent as it is emotive, this tightly focused, personal story has a lot to say about a complex subject, and never takes the easy route. It's a film that will stay in your head for a long time after the credits have rolled.
- Jennie Kermode, Eye For Film, 26 Mar 2020.

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