This time two months ago, I expected the weekend of March 27th to be the weekend I got to see Disney’s anticipated remake of Mulan. Well, things being as they are, Mulan will have to wait. Coming to the rescue yet again this week is Curzon Home Cinema, giving me a couple of interesting options, the most interesting of tall being award winning German drama System Crasher, seemingly the furthest from a Disney adventure one can get!
System Crasher tells the story of Benni (Helena Zengel), a deeply traumatised nine year old girl with behavioural problems who is continuously and relentlessly bounced from place to place within a problematic child welfare system. With her only real desire the unlikely prospect of being reunited with her flaky, absent mother, Benni’s cycle of hopeful progress and inventible disappointment fuels a raging fire of uncontrollable anger, falling hopelessly into a pattern of making brief meaningful connections before being thrown back to square one.
Right off the bat, something that has to be said about System Crasher is that it is a film that indulges in many of the tropes and cliches of a classic ‘troubled child in care’ narrative, but at the same time, I can’t deny that it shook me to my core. It is important to note that not all children in the system are prone to violence, or have suffered an extremely traumatic past, or have an unreliable scape-goat mother figure, but the filmmakers have chosen to lean into those traits for this particular story, and whilst I can recognise the predictably of certain elements, it doesn’t make the viewing experience any less visceral.
System Crasher is, to put it mildly, a painful watch, both heartbreaking and gut wrenching in equal measure. This isn’t a film that uses shock value graphic violence or over the top abuse accounts to break you (although there is a flavour of both), it instead wears you down by evoking a sense of desperate inevitability about what Benni’s life currently is, and is likely to be in the future. It feels almost like a German lovechild of The Florida Project, Short Term 12 and perhaps even a little bit of Girl, Interrupted, ideal for me seeing as those rank among my all time favourites.
From a stylistic point of view, what makes the film so interesting is that it uses an unexpectedly vibrant colour palette to counteract the utter bleakness of its subject matter, giving it an almost punk rock feel at times to match the alarming energy of the young protagonist. There are moments of real joy and hope, and sadly even more moments of pure dread bordering on psychological thriller. I was gripped from the very first frame, even if there were moments when all I wanted to do was look away.
The impact of the film starts and ends with Helena Zengel, who gives an unforgettable performance as Benni. Without doubt, one of the best I’ve seen from a child actor for years and years. Zengel’s angelic face combined with her ability to access the darkest corners of anger and trauma make for an arresting and, quite honestly, terrifying watch. She’s not playing some sort of cheesy possessed horror movie kid here, she’s showing you a version of a child that you might have never experienced in your own life before.
There is an intensity and a ‘flip the switch’ type energy to the character that no 9 year old should ever have to contend with, and Zengel portrays this like a tiny method Meryl Streep who has been practising the part for years. Just like the vast array of adults in the film, you find yourself both wanting to help Benni and wanting to run from her. The charisma and screen presence are off the charts, you honestly can’t take your eyes off of her.
Playing the biggest supporting role in Benni’s life is her school escort Micha played by Albrecht Schuch. The character is initially presented as one of those familiar ‘saviour’ stereotypes, taking different approaches and getting good results, but Micha’s involvement and investment soon start being put to the test, and Schuch’s performance is a really endearing one. Playing arguably an audience surrogate in an environment so far out of many people’s normal experience, we both route for him and are concerned for him, and the dynamic between Schuch and Zengel is endlessly watchable.
Overall, I have to say that I am glad Mulan was pushed back. I’m glad because otherwise, I know that I would not have made the time to see this troubling German drama that is going to sit in the back of my mind for weeks to come. A ‘troubled child’ narrative that ticks a lot of familiar boxes, but elevated by an absolutely incredible central performance from a young star who I have no doubt is destined for huge things. If nothing else, watch System Crasher so you can say that you knew about Helena Zengel before she blew the fuck up.