Saturday, July 18, 2020

System Crasher Is a Harrowing and Impressive Piece of FIlmmaking

As System Crasher begins, everybody has kind of given up on nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel). She's been moved from foster home to foster home. Each time, something goes awry. No matter how much it seems like Benni has found the perfect home, her violent tendencies, as well as a desire to retrun to her birth mother, keep creeping up. Anger management trainer Michael Heller (Albrecht Schuch) believes he can help Benni. He takes her on a three-week trip into the woods where they'll live in a secluded cabin. Away from the world, Benni will have to find more constructive outlets for her rage. Or at least, that's the plan.

Writer/director Nora Fingscheidt imbues System Crasher with a pervasive sense of inevitable doom. Nothing goes right for these characters. Seemingly foolproof solutions only beget more problems. For example, Benni's time in the woods was supposed to help her find new ways to express her feelings of rage. Instead, it just introduced a new wrinkle into Benni's life. Now she's become too attached to Michael. She sees him as the kind of trusting parental figure she never had. Unfortunately, that's not a role Michael can fill and he has to vehemently shoot down Benni's feelings. This results in Benni resorting to the violent acts her trip to the woods was supposed to eliminate in the first place.

System Crasher's story is full of things like that. Tragic ripple effects of seemingly good developments only exacerbate the turmoil Benni is going through. Even moments of pure joy, like Benni learning that her mom plans to reclaim her, are tinged with quiet dread over what's to come. At this point in the story, Fingscheidt has instilled in the viewer the idea that new nasty developments are lurking around every corner. Knowing that, watching Benni dance with joy on the table at a fast food restaurant does not instill one with elation. You just sit there, a pit developing in your stomach, knowing this jubilant emotion cannot last. Like the last drop of snow at the start of May, Benni's joy will soon be gone.

This quality related to inevitable misery makes System Crasher a harrowing movie to watch. However, Fingscheidt's execution of that element also makes System Crasher a thoroughly impressive feature film. Particularly commendable is how Fingscheidt is able to make so much of this movie wall-to-wall woe without losing sight of the characters. You can always tell where Benni, Michael, or helpful youth services worker Frau Bafane (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) are coming from. Their individual perspectives are clearly detailed and are always informing System Crasher, no matter how disturbing the movie gets.

For example, a scene of Benni gruesomely smashing the head of a younger child onto an ice rink isn't just shocking because of the violent act itself. Instead, the fact that it started because the younger child touched Benni's face lends a sense of tragedy to the whole unsettling sequence. As made clear early on in System Crasher, touching Benni's face triggers a violent response from the young girl. This is due to earlier trauma stemming from Benni having diapers smushed into her face at a young age. Benni's trauma is at the center of this sequence and the way Fingscheidt frames the scene reinforces that. We never see Benni explicitly beating up the child, just a puddle of blood-forming nearby and fragmented visions from Benni's past.

The editing and camerawork here put the viewer directly into the tormented headspace of Benni. Everything on-screen is as chaotic and intense as what's going on inside Benni's head at that moment. It's a tremendously well-done sequence on its own. It's also emblematic of how well System Crasher uses Benni's violent outbursts to vividly exploring how deeply impacted she is by childhood trauma. Her approach to these outbursts ensures that Benni's acts of rage aren't just pointless Eli Roth-esque shock value violence. Fingscheidt's writing of Benni as a fully-formed person allows the unsettling moments to have an impact. Benni becoming so overwhelmed with the prospect of going to school that she holds a knife to her throat, for example, lands as well as it does because we've seen what Benni experiences at school. These aren't random acts of disobedience, Fingscheit constantly underlies Benni's behavior with some (albeit warped) rationale.

Fingscheidt further gets the viewer into Benni's psyche through a recurring visual detail that sees System Crasher engaging in handheld camerawork only when it's capturing Benni running away from adult figures. Benni's feeling of exhilaration as she evades people trying to control her life is reflected in the lively camerawork. Every detail of System Crasher is informed by Benni, a character whose vivid nature is heavily owed to a go-for-broke performance by Helena Zengel. Benni is a character with a curse word always on her tongue and her fists constantly clenched. It'd be easy for her to become a caricature but Zengel impressively roots her in reality. There's such an appropriately uncomfortable realism to Benni just screaming at or violently attacking the adults around her.

Maybe many in-movie adults have given up on Benni. But clearly, both Nora Fingscheidt and Helena Zengel still believe in this girl. They do outstanding work making Benni a character so tragically ripped from the real world. That achievement does make System Crasher a hard movie to watch. But System Crasher's commitment to such an authentic reflection of a mentally tormented young child is also the quality that makes this Nora Fingscheidt feature as remarkable as it is.

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