Saturday, December 28, 2019

Systemsprenger / System Crasher

Systemsprenger. Helena Zengel as Benni.

Nora Fingscheidt, Sodankylä, Midnight Sun Film Festival, 13 June 2019. Photo: Anniliina Lassila.

System Crasher / System Crasher.
    DE © 2019 kineo Filmproduktion / Weydemann Bros. Co-PC: Oma Inge Film / ZDF Das kleine Fernsehspiel. Beta Cinema presents. P: Peter Hartwig, Jonas Weydemann, Jakob D. Weydemann.
    D+SC: Nora Fingscheidt. DP: Yunus Roy Imer – colour – 1:1,85 – DCP. PD: Marie-Luise Balzer. Cost: Ulé Barcelos. Makeup: Kitty Kratschke. M: John Gürtler.
    Song during end credits: "Ain't Got No / I Got Life" (James Rado, Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot, from the musical Hair, 1967) perf. Nina Simone on her album 'Nuff Said (1968).
    S: Corinna Zink, Jonathan Schorr. S design: Dominik Leube, Oscar Stiebitz. ED: Stephan Bechinger, Julia Kovalenko. Casting: Lisa Stutzky, Jacqueline Rietz.
    C: Helena Zengel (Benni / Bernadette Klaass), Albrecht Schuch (Micha / Michael Heller, Anti-Gewalt-Trainer), Gabriela Maria Schmeide (Frau Bafané, Jugendamtmitarbeiterin ), Lisa Hagmeister (Bianca Klaass). – Melanie Straub (Dr. Schönemann), Victoria Trauttmansdorff (Pflegemutter Silvia), Maryam Zaree (Elli Heller), Tedros Teclerbrhan (Erzieher Robert).
    Loc: Hamburg and Niedersachsen. Berlin and Brandenburg. 7 Nov 2017 – 27 March 2018.
    119 min
    Festival premiere: 8 Feb 2019 Berlin Film Festival.
    German premiere: 19 Sep 2019.
    Finnish premiere: 22 Nov 2019 – released by B-Plan Distribution – Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Janne Kauppila / Michael Palmberg.
    DCP viewed at Kinopalatsi 3, Helsinki, 28 Dec 2019.
    Elokuvan nimeä ei ole suomennettu eikä ruotsinnettu. Käsite "Systemsprenger" mainitaan dialogissa kerran, suomennoksena silloin "väliinputoaja".

Official synopsis (Weydemann Bros.): "She is small, but dangerous. Wherever Benni ends up, she is immediately expelled. The wild 9-year-old girl has already become what child protection services call a "system crasher". And she is certainly not looking to change her ways. Because Benni has one single goal: to be back at home with her mommy. But Bianca is scared of her own daughter. Mrs Bafané from child protection services is trying her best to find a permanent placement for Benni. She hires the anger management trainer Micha as Benni's school escort and suddenly there is a seed of hope. Will Micha be able to succeed where all others despaired?"

AA: An extraordinary performance carries this film. It feels unbelievably powerful while watching. Upon reflection its impact keeps growing. Helena Zengel (born in 2008), directed by Nora Fingscheidt, navigates in dangerous waters. Despite her young age she is already an experienced professional with several films under her belt. The intensity of Zengel's presence is terrifying.

"A system crasher", indeed, Benni, the character she is playing, is what is called in action movie ad copy "a one man wrecking crew" except that she is a little girl. Her foul language and unrestrained behaviour resemble monster children in horror movies like Regan in The Exorcist except that Benni is still in latency. Her rampage of destruction reminds me also of enfant terrible comedy series of early cinema such as Willy (which may have inspired Dennis the Menace). Finally I'm reminded of Kaspar Hauser and François Truffaut's L'Enfant sauvage. The fascination of these phenomena stems partly from our urge to see on the screen the forbidden spectacle of unabashed destruction, the extreme transgression.

All associations notwithstanding System Crasher owes nothing to predecessors. It is an original and awesome statement.

Everyone wants to help Benni. Everyone is defeated. Her mother Bianca (Lisa Hagmeister) is crushed. The tough anger management trainer Micha (Albrecht Schuch) loses distance and cannot go on. In a startling twist the stalwart child protection expert, Mrs. Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) breaks down in such helpless sobs that Benni needs to soothe her.

They try everything: play, sport, study, exercise, browsing photo albums, finding nice foster homes and places to stay. Micha even takes Benni to his forest retreat where she can visit a farm with animals. Benni, indeed, connects with the forest and the animals. She loves the echo in the forest. A particularly fascinating animal is the barn owl.

The yearning for mother is above all. "Mama" is Benni's favourite echo. The monster child writes a tender love song to her mother and sings it over the telephone.

It's not a downward path. In the forest a process of integration proceeds, only to vanish the moment they return to the city. Michael is a professional, but he commits an unprofessional act by introducing Benni to his family. There Benni mostly behaves normally.

But her attachments can become fearsome, and when there is an attempt to restrain them, Benni's deranged bursts of violence start all over again. She is physically strong for her age. She hits hard and runs fast.

The most dangerous moments are when Benni's face is touched. Then her primitive survival instinct is triggered. Apparently there has been an instance in Benni earliest childhood of being smothered. The trauma is unhealed. But at Michael's home when his baby touches Benni's face she is able to control herself for the first time.

Yet by then Michael has to admit the truth of having lost his distance and indulged in fantasies of salvation. He must give up Benni although progress has taken place, including the baby incident which nobody witnessed.

System Crasher may be particularly rewarding for childcare professionals, but its view of humanity has universal value. The film has mostly been shot with a sober realistic approach, as close to documentary as fiction can get. On the other hand, recurrent "psycho montage" passages take us to altered states of consciousness. We get a sense of the psychedelic side of Benni's world.

During the end credits we hear Nina Simone's legendary interpretation of "Ain't Got No / I Got Life", a song originally from Hair. Such an electrifying performance can become overwhelming, but here it perfectly matches the unique life force in the tragedy of Benni.

In her remarkable film Nora Fingscheidt is both deeply realistic and deeply aware of the mystery of humanity.

Helena Zengel as Benni and Joaquin Phoenix as Joker are the most powerful performances I have seen in films of 2019, both in portraits of "system crashers".



"While shooting a documentary about a home for dispossessed women, I heard the unofficial term “system crasher” for the first time, because the youngest resident was just 14 years old. There were no children’s homes left willing to take the girl in. I couldn’t get that term out of my head, so I started an intense research. During this period I met an 11-year-old boy who had been in 52 different institutions. “System crashers” are children with incredible strength and endurance, but still tragic figures. At a very early age they put all their opportunities of becoming integrated into our society at risk. How much energy does it take to drive so many trained child care workers to despair? What if it were possible to re-channel this energy and use it for positive purposes? "

"My motivation for making this film was to sensitize people to children like Benni. That’s why the film is being told primarily from Benni’s point of view. As spectators we develop a feeling for the confusing number of “homes”, the changing guardians and the constant and dizzying disruption of relationships. At the same time, Benni draws us into the wild, uncertain, fantasy-filled world of a child fighting for her own sense of being. I wanted the film to bubble with energy and, despite the tragic nature of the topic, to be humorous and lighthearted. Just like Benni is. Although we may be upset –even shocked –by Benni’s violent behavior, we should learn to love her and to fear for her during the course of the film. Ever since I met my first “system crasher”, I’ve known that I had to tell a story about one. Children’s violence is a cry for help. Always.


Benni, the heroine of SYSTEM CRASHER, is nine years old. What was your experience like as a nine-year-old?
Quite good, actually. I was also a rebellious child, but lucky enough to grow up in a family environment that was able to accept and channel my energy.

Benni doesn’t benefit from this good fortune. As a so-called "problem child," she has to constantly change caregivers and deal with the decisions that others make for her. Did this subject come to you, or did you search for it?
It came to me, yes, you can say that. For a long time I wanted to make a story about a volatile and extremely energetic girl. The idea wouldn’t let go of me, but I simply didn’t have the right occasion yet to implement it. When I was making a documentary about a homeless women’s shelter in Stuttgart six years ago, that moment had come.

Please describe this moment.
One day a fourteen-year-old girl moved into the shelter. This was a shock for me. I asked about her and heard the term "system crasher" for the first time. This is what children like Benni, who are kicked out everywhere they go, are unofficially called.

SYSTEM CRASHER is a fascinating expression...
Yes, incredibly powerful and radical. But I’m aware that it will be polarizing as a film title. Because it's not about hackers or anti-G20 protesters. Even among experts it is very controversial, because it doesn’t capture the heart of the matter. These children and adolescents aren’t destroying any kind of functioning system; rather, it is failed system processes that lead to the fact that they aren’t accepted anywhere and are repeatedly thrown off track. So one tries to avoid "system crasher" as a term. Nevertheless, there are few really good alternatives.

Why is Benni only nine?
It was a deliberate decision, just like the decision to cast a girl and not a boy, who are in the majority as "system crashers." At the age of nine, children can act consciously to a certain extent, and also manipulate. Nonetheless, we should be afraid for Benni. We wanted to keep her away from clichés and rash categorizations, like suggesting adolescent rebellion simply because she may be fourteen years old. Also, Benni shouldn’t live in a rough big city, in order to avoid putting her into the next pigeonhole and thereby simplifying the subject matter.

This is a character that stands or falls with her actress. How did you find the fascinating Helena Zengel?
For years while I was writing the script, I thought I would never find a girl who could play Benni. And if I did, the parents would never agree to let her play this girl. Nevertheless, I kept writing because I had to do it. Of course I made a point of starting the search early enough – in agencies, on the streets, in schools and sports clubs. Helena was the seventh in the first selection of ten girls. It was immediately clear that she had something extremely special. But I thought it was impossible that we had already found the right one in number seven. The Dardenne brothers cast 700 boys for The Kid with a Bike! So we moved on, auditioned around 150 girls and still kept coming back to Helena again and again.

What was special about her?
She was the only one who could play aggression and hardship at the same time. There was never anything spoiled or impudent, it was always linked with fragility and vulnerability.

How did you work with Helena?
At first Helena's mother read the script with her alone. She has a great understanding of our narrative concerns, but asked immediately how we would deal with the extremes in terms of content. I am the mother of an eight-year-old son myself, which is why it was particularly important to me to go about our preparations very carefully. The goal was to slip into the character of Benni and enter into her world little by little. We started to get to know each other and work together six months before shooting. This also meant that Helena was involved in the process of selecting the actors, down to the smallest supporting role. So everyone had to meet and interact with her during auditions. And she really has an enormous presence, so you have to hold your own as a partner on the set.

How did you rehearse with Helena?
On the day before the actual shooting day we rehearsed the material, explored texts and situations, also in order to see what might not be right. Then we slept on it. So we always knew what to expect.

The focus of SYSTEM CRASHER is clearly on Benni. Nevertheless, the successful balance is up to the adults who interact or try to interact with her.
Because the whole system consists of people who are caught up in structures that for the most part they did not create themselves.

Do you also want to provoke a discussion in society?
Yes, a discussion about violence and aggression, which often arise out of fear, especially among children, and how we deal with it. About what lies behind the understandable impulse to want to lock away these children, because others have to be protected. Who among us is aware that there are still children's homes and child psychiatry offices that are overflowing everywhere and have long waiting lists? In Germany this is more of a marginal social issue. But also thinking about all the caregivers who are often extremely overburdened in their strenuous and under-appreciated jobs.

On the subject of research, it must have been prolonged and intense.
It certainly was! It went on for several years. I lived in a residential group and worked in a school for educational assistance, a child welfare placement center, and a child psychiatry office. In addition, I held countless discussions with employees of institutions and agencies and also with child and youth psychologists. It was a kaleidoscope of people and places that moved me very much.

Did you ever have the feeling that there was still a missing piece of the puzzle, so there was a danger of the research never ending?
I had to stop the research for other reasons, because at a certain point, what I saw and heard was affecting me too much. My world view had grown too much darker. All the severe cases of child abuse and neglect accumulated. I couldn’t have endured any more research.

Are children like Benni lost?
I think it is very difficult for them, but they are often so impressive and yet invisible at the same time. This only changes when they are maybe sixteen or eighteen and situations start to escalate. The really terrible stories these teenagers went through as children, when they were really in need, remain in the shadows. But there are also occasional cases where children pull themselves together.

You also work as a documentary filmmaker. Why did SYSTEM CRASHER become a feature film?
A documentary was something I never considered as an option. I wanted to create an intense, energetic audiovisual cinematic experience that lays no claim to reality. Because the reality is much worse. WITHOUT THIS WORLD, however, my last project, could never have become a feature film. I would never have wanted to stage a fundamentalist Christian sect with German roots in Argentina. I wanted to really go there, to feel and experience, to observe. For SYSTEM CRASHER, though, I couldn’t intrude into the lives of real people who already have it hard enough. Absolutely not!

It would be too harsh for audiences, too.
Barely endurable even. Who would want to watch that? I wanted to make an intense fictional film with a raw energy that rivets the audience and shakes them up in a positive sense. It's also about the beauty of people who simply don’t fit into the system.

The scenes that Benni’s mother gets are few, but intense and painful. Were they especially tricky to pull off?
They were like treading a borderline. Because we’re presenting a mother who loves her child yet harms her at the same time, who is helpless and overwhelmed, gentle, weak, and at the same time tough and severe. I often experienced something like this during my research: mothers with five children who have been taken from them, and yet they go on to have a sixth, seventh, eighth. You have to look very closely at these women to understand what is behind their decisions. It's about not betraying them, but letting them keep their dignity. As a child you are at the mercy of your parents, regardless of which family you are born into. Nearly all children like Benni want to go back to mom and dad, even if they experienced abuse and egregious violence there. This often renders us adults speechless, but it's a fact.

Though a few devices are used, SYSTEM CRASHER is carried by its own authentic atmosphere.
The film contains many generalized scenes that reflect reality. Scenes that were told to me or that I experienced and then developed further. They were to some extent polished, shortened, or amplified, simply due to the needs of the film dramaturgy and the fact that it must remain watchable. And yet I was primarily concerned with conveying Benni’s emotional world, her traumas, and her body feeling. SYSTEM CRASHER stands for what I want in cinema. I like anti-heroes who do terrible things out of desperation and hurt the people they love the most.

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