SYSTEM CRASHER (Systemsprenger)

(director/writer: Nora Fingscheidt; cinematographer: Yunus Roy Imer; editors: Stephan Bechinger, Julia Kovalenko; music: John Gurtler; cast: Helena Zengel (Bernadette ‘Benni’ Klaaß), Albrecht Schuch (Michael ‘Micha’ Heller, Anti-Gewalt-Trainer), Gabriela Maria Schmeide (Frau Bafané, caseworker), Lisa Hagmeister (Bianca Klaaß, mother), Melanie Straub (Dr. Schönemann), Victoria Trauttmansdorff (Sylvia Schwarz), Maryam Zaree (Elli Heller), Tedros Teclebrhan (Erzieher Robert); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Peter Hartwigm Jonas Weydemann, Jakob D. Weydemann; Netflix; 2019-Germany-in German with English subtitles)

“The heartbreaking expose leaves us with a sense of despair.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is German documentarian Nora Fingscheidt’s (“Without This World”) first foray into a narrative feature and is a good one if you are up to seeing such a heavy slog. It’s a well-researched film about the German child welfare system failing the abused nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel), whose trauma causes her to have violent psychotic episodes. It features an amazing child performance by the 11-year-old Helena Zengel playing an out-of-control mentally disturbed 9-year-old.

The energetic, very bright and foul-mouthed Benni lives with her inept and harried single mother Bianca Klaass (Lisa Hagmeister), who is in an abusive relationship. When the inadequate mom realizes she couldn’t cope with her troublesome situation and that her younger siblings were at risk, she gives Benni over to social services (the system Benni crashes).

Benni can’t find a foster home after removed from several homes because of her bad behavior. Currently she’s in a temporary group home, where she’s assigned a school escort, whose specialty is anger management, Micha Heller (Albrecht Schuch). He’s a tough guy with a heart of gold, who is frustrated that Benni’s unable to sit still in a classroom. Thinking outside the box, Micha takes her to his cabin in the woods for three weeks of work and bonding. The idea being that hugs can sometimes be more effective than meds.

After a bad start in the country, Benni gets into the swing of chopping wood, digging the fresh country air, and salivating on all the attention she gets from Micha.

Breaking all the rules, Micha brings her to stay at his own home for the night. A reckless move that puts his pregnant wife (Maryam Zaree) and infant in possible danger because of her history of violence. They all survive, but Micha frets that his earnest rescue efforts are not professional. Though his boss, the welfare caseworker, Mrs. Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), the last adult not to give up on the child, is willing to chance this unorthodox experiment if it helps Benni. 

Things look more rosy when one of Benni’s former foster mothers, Sylvia Schwarz (Victoria Trauttmansdorff), offers to take her in again now that there’s only one other child in her house. But too many conflicts develop, and again things don’t work out.

What the intelligent film is good at is exposing the limits and harsh realities of the child welfare system, and point out that so many children under their care are not helped. The film can be excused for being over-sympathetic in its approach to its turbulent but vulnerable victimized protagonist, someone in need of unconditional love. In the end, the heartbreaking expose leaves us with a sense of despair.