System Crasher

 

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A gripping German drama that can't seem to find the message it wants to deliver.

 
System Crasher

Helena Zengel

 

We have here a film from Germany which leaves one in no doubt at all as to what counts as its outstanding feature. The central character in this drama written and directed by Nora Fingscheidt is the 9-year-old girl to which the title refers: she is a deeply troubled child named Benni (her preferred version of Bernadette) whose wildness cuts across all that the care services are trying to do for her and the young actress who plays her, Helena Zengel, is just astounding - there is no other word for it.

 

A traumatic experience in early childhood has been exacerbated by the fact that Benni wants to be looked after by her mother (Lisa Hagmeister) and resents it when the mother, who has two other even younger children, cannot cope. This past history together with the sense of rejection has resulted in Benni behaving in ways that prevent her from being an acceptable foster child or even from being looked after in a care home. It is not just that she regularly uses strong language and is subject to violent outbursts, but that she is literally a threat to all-round her, even at one point wielding a knife. Frau Bafané from the child protection services (Gabriella Maria Schmeide) does all she can to help her but the person who gets closest to Benni is a colleague of hers, Micha Heller (Albrecht Schuch), who is something of a specialist in anger management. It is he who, rather than relying on medication, believes that a one-to-one bond of sympathy and understanding can supply the answer. Other possibilities include a further spell with a former foster mother (Victoria Trauttmansdorff) or sending Benni away to a special establishment in Kenya which would be the most desperate move of all.

 

Fingscheidt's greatest achievement here, other than the wondrous performance that she gets from Zengel, lies in the way in which, despite wanting to involve viewers emotionally, she totally avoids any sentimentality in the writing and manages too to prevent the piece from falling into melodrama. It also helps that the other players (not least Schuch as the helpful Micha) are very well cast but, lasting around two hours, the film certainly comes to seem overlong (Benni's explosive moments sometimes lead to unexpected dramatic developments but are repetitive nevertheless). Furthermore, some stylised passages in between acted scenes, close at times to a semi-abstract montage, seem like a self-conscious imposition and lead into a somewhat ambiguous final sequence in something close to the same mould. But the biggest drawback of all is that the film has nothing useful to say. You may want Benni to be helped, but her danger to those close to her is so evident that one deplores the sometimes unlikely risks taken by those seeking to aid her. You feel that Fingscheidt wants to arouse concern for children like Benni and that her film is aimed at doing just that. But what is on screen while underlining the issues offers no answers, not even tentative ones. So what is the point of it all (except, of course, to provide a work that all admirers of child actresses just have to see)?

 

Original title: Systemsprenger.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Lisa Hagmeister, Melanie Straub, Victoria Trauttmansdorff, Maryam Zaree, Tedros Teclebrhan, Matthias Brenner, Louis von Klipstein, Barbara Philipp.

 

Dir Nora Fingscheidt, Pro Peter Hartwig, Jakob Weydemann and Jonas Weydemann, Screenplay Nora Fingscheidt, Ph Yunus Roy Imer, Pro Des Marie-Luise Balzer, Ed Stephen Bechinger and Julia Kovalenko, Music John Gürtler, Costumes Ulé Barcelos.

 

Kineo Filmproduktion/Weydemann Bros/Oma Inge Film/ZDF/Das Kleine Fernsehspiel-606 Distribution.
125 mins. Germany. 2019. Rel: 27 March 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 15.