The enigmatic Helena Zengel gives a tremendous performance as Benni, a severely traumatised “system crasher” whose unruly behaviour and violent outbursts are too much for welfare programs to handle. She bounces between various group homes, foster parents, and hospital facilities while experimenting with different medications and therapies. Too young for a confined treatment program, Benni finds herself in a frustrating and chaotic state of transience that exacerbates her fury and childhood suffering. Her traumatic upbringing, such as having dirty diapers shoved in her face as a baby, manifests in wild fits of rage, particularly when anyone touches her face. Abandoned by her father and left behind by her frazzled, out-of-her-depth mother (Lisa Hagmeister), she is taken under the wing of her school aid Micha (the quietly simmering Albrecht Schuch).
Frantic, handheld camera movements and punk rock music with crashing drums expressively bring to life the turbulent storm that whirls inside Benni. The anarchic nine-year-old tears through the urban streets, pushing past anyone in her path, her bright pink coat flashing in the wind like a phoenix. Her feral energy is both exhilarating and terrifying, and Zengel portrays Benni’s bubbly, charming side so often engulfed by her hellish temper with a deft, empathetic maturity. Writer and director Nora Fingscheidt compassionately visualises the ire that courses through Benni during moments of distress with a bright burst of pink colour that fills the screen—a play on the idea of “seeing red” and ironic use of a colour typically associated with the cute innocence of a young girl; Benni is not your typical girl but rather helter-skelter hellion. She is removed from the comforts of living at home with her mother and siblings to live a life of loneliness in sterile, mechanical hospitals and unstable group homes. The colour of pink marks the most intense moments of Benni’s wrath, but they do, in time, calm to a steady, white lull.
As part of healthcare professionals, psychologists, and social workers’ intensive mission to help Benni improve, Micha takes Benni to a therapeutic retreat in the woods. They forge a strong bond where Benni begins to regard him as a father figure, particularly because he has had similar anger issues in the past. The removal of technology and activities of physical labour such as chopping wood or pushing down abandoned wooden structures seems to help Benni, but once they return to the city she acts up again. System Crasher’s final act is nerve-wracking, escalating to a fever pitch and culminating in a cathartic ending reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. Anchored by a stellar child performance, Fingscheidt’s sensitively nuanced dramatisation of children’s lives in the system takes a bleak subject and transforms it into something hopeful.
System Crasher will be available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 27th March
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian and does social media for Passion River Films. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.