Benni is 9, and what “they” call a “problem child”. As a baby, she had nappies forced into her face, and her mother’s useless boyfriend is taken to locking her in a cupboard when things get too much. Consequently, when she is frightened (as she often is), she resorts to screeching or fighting. She is proud that all her classmates are scared of her – “even the boys”.
Benni goes to what she calls a “school for the disabled”. It would be better described as somewhere for children with social problems. She doesn’t live at home any more as her mother is struggling to cope – particularly as the useless boyfriend appears to have disappeared again. Benni’s mother worries that if she stays at home, her 2 younger siblings may end up like she is.
This means that Benni is pushed from pillar to post – to foster parents or homes, or even to a hospital bed. Her mother seems ready to take her back, but falters at the last minute. This further prejudices Benni’s hope that she could ever find someone who is unequivocably on her side, so as to give a sliver of stability in her life.
Micha usually works at peaceful conflict resolution with teenagers, but he is brought in to accompany Benni to school. Micha suggests taking her away to the woods for 3 weeks, in part to give her an environment where she can take her aggression out with impunity against trees, which bleed less profusely than her fellow students. It has a short-term positive effect but does not get to the core of what is troubling Benni.
When Benni bashes her head against his car window, drawing blood, Micha offers to let her stay one night in his flat. This is against all the rules, not least because he has a pregnant partner and a small child. Micha starts to feel out of his depth – his instincts say that he can save Benni, but intellectually he knows that her problems are much more fundamental, so long as she lives in a society which is unable to give her the attention that she needs.
In case it isn’t already obvious, I think this is a remarkable film, and that Helena Zengel’s performance as Benni is breathtaking. What is particularly impressive is that Benni is not just portrayed as being full of uncontrollable desperation. For long periods she is happy – joyful even, yet Zengel’s face can move very quickly from angelic innocence into rage as she is triggered and takes her aggression out on victims who are generally weaker than herself.
Yet at no time does the film blame Benni for her condition, nor does it ever suggest that this is anything that can be solved by pumping her up to the eyeballs with drugs. Similarly, although the social workers and other educators are often shown as hopeless and unable to help, they are seen as being just as much the victims as Benni of a system which is unable to deal with problems for which it is partly to blame.
Benni requires stability in her life, but the system is run according to the cynical realpolitik that says that if she stays too long in the same project, she will be all the more disappointed when it inevitably falls apart. In the end there is talk of sending Benni to a project in Africa, but you get the feeling that this is aimed at making her someone else’s problem rather than offering any hope of finding a real solution.
The English title of the film is “System Crasher”, which doesn’t quite hit the same nuance as the original. A Systemsprenger is someone who falls between the cracks – who the social services see as a burden, as it is not clear how they are to be helped, society being what it is. If you want a modern tragedy, this is a good place to start.
There is no happy ending – nor should there be, but there is a moment of respite. Benni runs away – again, and under conditions that mean that she is bound to be caught again and shoved back into the uncaring system. But for just this moment there is such a look of joy on her face, that she finally has some control. It won’t last, but she revels in the fleeting moment.
For a film that is so unremittingly grim, it is remarkable how many such moments of joy this film contains. And to think that it was beaten to the Golden Bear by the witless “Synonyms” in this year’s Berlinale.
Second viewing – July 2020
First, what should be self-evident. This is an exceptional film which makes you wonder why 99% of film makers even bother producing self-indulgent works which just don’t matter. And the acting is superb – not just Helena Zengel as Benni, but the whole cast. At no sense did you feel that this incredible story wasn’t true to life.
A few further thoughts – why do we stay insistently on Benni’s side although her behaviour often resembles that of a spoilt brat? Its not just pity for a victim – although the scenes with her mother’s useless boyfriend are chillingly traumatizing. Nor is it just that she’s got a winning, toothy smile, which made a potential foster mother in the film say she’d fallen in love with her already.
I think its something more than this: that on occasions – not least the final scene of futile flight – Benni is capable of being truly joyful, full of hope and excitement. We can’t think of her as being intrinsically evil, but of someone capable of something really positive. Like Micha we want to think that she can be saved, even if at heart we know she’s probably doomed.
The relationship with Micha is even more complex second time round. At first he encourages her to call her by his first name, but she insists on using his job title, “Erzieher”. Erzieher’s not so easy to translate. Linguee.de offers “teacher” or “educator”, but an Erzieher is certainly more than a teacher. Its someone who brings a child up.
So, anyway, as Benni gradually wins trust in Micha, she starts calling him by his name, but this is the very point where borders are crossed. She climbs into his bed, claiming that her own is damp. There’s nothing sexual, but its a request that he take over the role of her father. She now starts calling him not “Micha” but “Papa”.
Micha says he can’t do this – he explains that he has a family, as does she – but does she really? Her mother would like to resume her responsibilities, especially after the useless boyfriend is kicked into touch, but is genuinely worried that a reconciliation will result in Benni’s brother going down the same path.
So, we have a circle which can’t be squared. Benni needs more than a professional can deliver – she needs the sort of idealized family that rarely exists in the real world. This is how capitalist society loads people up with false expectations and watches them come crashing down when these expectations cannot be met.
In a poignant aside that you only notice second time round, very early in the film, Benni is asked what she wants to do when she grows up. She is very clear – she wants to be an Erzieherin. While part of you cringes with the knowledge that she so obviously lacks the necessary empathy, you also think that she would be actually very good with parts of the job.
This is a tragedy in the dramatic sense of the word. Failure is inevitable, because the cards were stacked before the story started. And yet here the tragic flaw does not lie in the failures of any individual, it is systemic. We cannot have a happy ending because society is unable to cope with the people who it has failed.
And yet, as said, the film is packed with moments of joy, usually felt by Benni. It seems to be simulataneously arguing that life can be wonderful and that its ultimately a pile of crap. It is to the credit of director Nora Fingscheidt and the entire cast that it is somehow able to pull this off.