The smartest choice in System Crasher, a visually frenetic film about a nine-year-old girl stuck in the German care system, is one of costume design. Gilets, jumpers, windcheaters, hats: Benni (Helena Zengel) will wear anything so long as it’s in shocking pink. The movie’s title appears on screen in the same colour, the letters daubed over a window that Benni has cracked during one of her tantrums, and those pink outfits turn the child herself into a sort of rude blotch on every shot. When she’s pictured in a country landscape it’s like seeing graffiti sprayed on a Constable.
The pink clashes with her vanilla hair and milky skin, but it also marks her out in any scene so that we can never take our eyes off her. Not that there would be much chance of that: she’s a candy-coloured cyclone who leaves blood and broken glass in her wake. In her quieter moments, we start to understand why. Leafing through a photograph album, she picks out the highlights: “This is my second foster mum… This was my therapy horse…”
She is holding out for the love of her biological mother. (“Sometimes I’m really afraid of her,” the woman says. Sometimes?) Until then, Benni is bumped from group home to foster parent and back again. Micha (Albrecht Schuch), who usually works with troubled teenagers and whose job it is to escort her to school each day, offers her three weeks of one-on-one caregiving in a remote cabin in the Lüneberg Heath. His colleagues flash a rather-you-than-me look. Waving them off, someone says to Benni: “Don’t kill him, OK?”
The picture has already hinted that man and girl might be kindred spirits. An introductory glimpse of Micha comes during a heated phone-call that proves him to be scarcely better at controlling his temper than she is. With his round cheeks, buzz-cut and face fuzz, he’s like a big, stubbly baby. He admits at one point to entertaining “rescue fantasies” in his work with Benni. Possibly he has watched Good Will Hunting once too often and fancies that he can restage the scene where Sean (Robin Williams) cures Will (Matt Damon) with nothing more than a hug and the mantra: “It’s not your fault.” More fool him.
There are manic woodland montages set to a propulsive electronic score. And when Micha invites Benni to knock down a shed with a mallet and an axe, viewers will be adopting their own rather-you-than-me expressions. Instead of assuaging Benni’s problems, however, the woodland sojourn only creates new ones. The child becomes attached to Micha, though it doesn’t help matters that he takes her back to meet his wife, Elli (Maryam Zaree), and their baby. Elli is wearing a marmalade-coloured top that matches the curtains; unlike Benni, her clothes fit harmoniously with her environment. She smiles at her husband indulgently as if to say: “You big softy.” Though she might have been better off saying: “Um, boundaries?” This is not the sort of work he should be bringing home with him, after all, and it isn’t prudent for a male care professional to sit with a young girl while she takes a bath.
The writer-director Nora Fingscheidt is prone to occasional cutesiness in the characterisation (“You’re a shithead, asshole,” the kid tells one guardian, who replies: “Missed you too, Benni”) but she doesn’t soft-pedal the girl’s volatility. “What if I kill your wife and child?” Benni asks Micha menacingly. “Then I’d have you to myself.” The irony is that this difficult child makes an exemplary parent. Finding her younger half-siblings alone in front of a horror film, she switches the television to the cartoon channel. Waking up before Micha and Elli, she mixes the formula milk and feeds their baby lovingly. She even comforts her own case worker, who breaks down in tears after Benni’s mother delays the girl’s return home for the umpteenth time.
System Crasher is an absorbing piece of film-making that has turbo-boosted the careers of both actor and director: Fingscheidt is currently shooting a Netflix adaptation of Sally Wainwright’s ITV drama Unforgiven (with Sandra Bullock in the Suranne Jones role), while the astonishing Zengel, now 11, will next be seen opposite Tom Hanks in Paul Greengrass’s Western News of the World. If there isn’t the degree of analytical distance necessary to put Fingscheidt’s picture in the same class as L’Enfant Sauvage, François Truffaut’s 1970 film based on the real-life case of a feral child integrated into late 18th- and early 19th-century society, she does at least pay tribute to that movie in those shots where the camera frames its young outsider as a speck in the wilderness.
It is in one such moment that we get a rare sighting of Benni without a shred of pink on her. Bounding across a bleached-out field in pale pyjamas she is almost invisible; it would be hard to think of a better visual expression of the whole purpose of acting out as a defence against annihilation. Take away the anger which defines her and she falls through the cracks in the system.
“System Crasher” is available on Curzon Home Cinema from 27 March
System Crasher (15)
dir: Nora Fingscheidt
This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor