System Crasher (2019)
Written & Directed by Nora Fingschedit
This is a difficult movie to write about because it touches so close to the things I encounter in my daily life. I am a public school teacher in the United States, licensed for elementary education. I have taught 3rd grade for the last five years out of the nine I’ve been a teacher. Before that, I worked as an AmeriCorps reading tutor, substitute teacher, and student-teacher since 2006. No matter what public school you enter in this country, there is a very high chance you will encounter at least one student the breaks all the supports in place, a child that feels wholly broken. This is almost always a result of abuse that stems from the parent’s psychological condition, poverty conditions, or a mix of both. System Crasher is the story of this student.
Benni (Helena Zengel) is a nine-year-old girl from Germany. At some point in her past, the state took custody from her mother after finding she was unfit. Benni is extremely violent with both peers and adults; at one point, she almost murders a small child by bludgeoning their head against the ground. The roots of her behavior are intentionally obscured by the film because, in real life, there is never a silver bullet answer, neither can the same be said for a solution. Benni goes through a revolving door of housing facilities and special schools, her social worker, Mrs. Bafne, becoming broken over the path to a mental hospital that seems inevitable. A school escort is assigned to her, Micha. His job is to make sure Benni gets to and from school and that she is kept from becoming violent with the other students.
The realism of the violence and intensity we see from Benni is astonishing. I have worked with this child, watched this child in action throughout my years teaching. This isn’t merely a child with a poor attitude or who talks back, showing out for peers. This is a person who has such scars of deep mental trauma running through their psyche that they burn every bridge of well-intentioned love from people around them. Benni can be very charming and sweet, with adults like Micha emotionally investing her but restrained by restrictions and laws that are intended to keep both the child and adult out of harm.
I’m sure to some audiences who don’t work in education or child care they will quickly dismiss Benni as human refuse who should be tossed away. That’s how most of society views these children, and yes, the harm they do to others is inexcusable. Yet, they are products of a system that agitates and turns people apathetic. If there is anyone close to being a villain in the picture, it is Benni’s mother, an overwhelmed mother of three who stays in a relationship with an abusive man. What chance did Benni have being born into the chaos of her life? In turn, what circumstances did her mother encounter that led to this? Maybe you’re the sort of person that simply shrugs, says it’s not your problem, and goes about your life. That’s always been something hard for me to do, and I don’t know if I’d like myself if I could do that.
System Crasher shows a process in place, slightly different than the even worse one we have in the States, of how a society deals with children like Benni. You empathize with her, but you also feel for the people who run the housing facilities, the social worker, the school escort, everyone who got into this field not to become wealthy but because they wanted to help. Can you blame them if they respond to another crisis situation with an exhausted sigh? They have to become distant to survive psychologically. If they gave their whole heart to every child that passed through, they would burn out and possibly end up self-medicating or worse to cope.
System Crasher is a film about how things are. It doesn’t attempt to sell a shiny happy vision of children finding a perfect mentor and thriving. It also doesn’t seek to show how the whole structure is broken, cold, and sterile. This is a picture about how hard it is to be human, especially when faced with our fellow beings who might not fit the norms that keep us comfortable. There is no way to fix Benni despite how her caretakers try. Some people are just this way, and no amount of love or medication can change that. So the ultimate question is, do these people like Benni deserve love? And if so, what does that love look like?