Likely to be one of the more divisive films at this year’s Berlinale, “System Crasher” depends very much upon whether you believe, when dealing with children saddled with severe traumas and possible neurological issues, that one-on-one attention is more effective than medication in providing a stable platform for recovery. For those skeptical of prescription-based solutions, charmed when tortured kids briefly settle down and experience the thrill of freedom, Nora Fingscheidt’s scripted debut may be an affirmative experience. For others, however, it’s a well-meaning yet maddening slog that soft-pedals the preaching while overindulging the screeching.
The term “system crasher” is apparently used to describe out-of-control kids whose behavior is so antisocial that they’re unplaceable: too young for confined in-treatment programs, too violent to remain in foster care or a group home for any length of time, these children defy a child welfare system unable to cope. “System Crasher” is about such a child, together with the caregivers doggedly determined to give the preternaturally pale Benni (Helena Zengel, deeply impressive) some kind of foundation and prevent her uncontrollable violent outbreaks. It’s the kind of movie where everyone, even Benni’s inept, harried mother, is extended the nonjudgmental hand of empathy, carefully designed to make us feel that even if the spunky sweetheart puts other childrens’ lives in jeopardy, the transformative power of love will correct the imbalance.
Benni isn’t your run-of-the-mill disturbed child. Rather, the nine-year-old is a riotously loquacious bundle of energy, quick-witted, foul-mouthed, and given to brutal outbursts in which she regularly emits decibel-climbing screams and violently attacks other kids. Her single mother Bianca Klaass (Lisa Hagmeister), predictably in an abusive relationship, wasn’t able to cope and had to hand her daughter over to social services, which frankly made sense since Benni’s behavior puts her younger siblings at risk. The girl has two major triggers guaranteed to set her off: One is being told she can’t do what she wants, and the other is touching her face, a sensitivity stemming from an early childhood trauma.
Her child welfare caseworker Maria Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) is the only adult who hasn’t given up on the girl, determined to find her a place even though she’s been ejected from so many homes that the rest basically refuse her admittance. She’s currently in a temporary group home where she’s assigned a school escort, Micha Heller (Albrecht Schuch), one of those nice guys with a troubled past whose tough-ish exterior disguises a heart of gold. Unfortunately, Benni’s incapable of sitting in a classroom without acting out, so Micha hits on the idea of taking her to his cabin in the woods for three weeks of work and bonding, since hugs (as per the film) are more effective than meds, which are constantly abandoned if taken at all.
Naturally, things start badly, but soon it’s the best three weeks of Benni’s young life — chopping wood, fresh air, and one-on-one attention are the kick-starters toward changed behavior. But the idyll must come to an end; Benni freaks, and Micha, breaking all rules, allows her to stay at his own home for one night. Never mind that he has a pregnant wife (Maryam Zaree) and infant who could be in danger. They all survive, though Micha is concerned his rescue fantasies are interfering with his professionalism, something Mrs. Bafané is willing to overlook. One of Benni’s foster mothers, Sylvia Schwarz (Victoria Trauttmansdorff), offers to take her in again now that there’s only one other child in her house. Things don’t go as expected for the characters (although audiences can easily anticipate the conflict), and there’s the possibility of sending Benni to a farm in Kenya.
Fingscheidt comes from a documentary background (her film “Without This World,” about Mennonites in Argentina, was in the 2018 Berlinale), and based her script for “System Crasher” on considerable research. Though her sincerity is certainly admirable, and her good intentions crystal clear, the unfailing sympathy she awards Benni while she careens around, as if liberation from social behavior that doesn’t harm others is to be indulged, is poorly thought out and deeply problematic. While there’s no question that we tend to over-medicate children today, pretending that certain patients suffering from psychotic episodes won’t benefit from the right combination of drugs is about as scientifically sound as the anti-vaccination movement.
What the film does do well is show the exasperation of professional caregivers who can’t accommodate every problem child in the system. From doctors to teachers, foster parents to school escorts, their resources and patience are stretched, yet it’s equally understandable that the welfare of the majority of children in placement must be weighed against one extremely violent, indeed vicious kid. Fingscheidt is plainly advocating for a utopian individualized setup to accommodate all, however impractical that may be.
The film’s best takeaway is the exceptional, no-holds-barred performance of Zengel (“Dark Blue Girl”), who throws herself into the anarchic role with impressive abandon. Effortlessly flipping from angelic dissimulation to all-out psychosis, the young actress has a haunting presence that even at her calmest, never completely hides the turmoil within — which is why blurry montages of semi-nightmarish dream images feel truly unnecessary. Scenes where the camera races just behind Benni, accompanied by driving music, are designed to underline the girl’s urge for liberation, but having this child loose on the world is really not the outcome anyone could want.