Curzon Home Cinema
Here’s a tip for you: don’t watch this film if you’re in the mood for a bit of light entertainment to help you while away a locked-down evening. Also, don’t watch it if you’re up for something sad but ultimately up-lifting. In fact, don’t watch it at all unless you’re prepared to spend a couple of hours feeling horrible and helpless, sobbing intermittently, furious about the way we let down our most vulnerable kids.
And nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel) is very vulnerable. Traumatised in her infant years, she is bursting with rage. Her social worker, Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), is running out of options. Benni has been expelled from so many group homes there’s nowhere left to try. All she wants is to go back to her mama (Lisa Hagmeister), but that’s not possible. Not when mama’s abusive boyfriend is there; not when mama fails every time to prioritise her daughter.
It’s utterly, devastatingly, heartbreaking. I don’t remember when I last cried so much. Zengel’s performance is extraordinary. Her Benni is a desperate child, who just needs someone to love her. But she’s so damaged, so violent and so destructive that not many adults can cope with her. Sometimes it seems like a breakthrough might be possible: there’s a string of well-meaning professionals such as her school escort, Micha (Albrecht Schuch), who go out on a limb to try to help. But three weeks’ respite in the woods isn’t a permanent home; a friendly mentor is no replacement for a family; they can never give enough. And Benni’s yearning is so vast it’s all-consuming. Everyone wants to make things better but no one knows what to do.
The film is German, so the social care set-up is different from ours here in the UK. But the inadequacy of a bureaucratic system to address the needs of a wounded child is all too recognisable. The team around Benni are decent, dedicated folk, their anguish as palpable as hers as each of their efforts fails.
Writer/director Nora Fingscheidt has crafted System Crasher to perfection, depicting Benni’s calamitous story in unflinching detail. I especially like the razor-sharp flickers of flashback we are shown whenever Benni begins to freak out, brief glimpses into the suffering that has shaped her blighted life. I like the colours too: a light-saturated palette that seems to suggest brighter possibilities.
Sadly, for Benni, such possibilities are only dreams. This is truly a modern tragedy.