THE HORROR OF being a small child beset with enormous flaws is something that many a writer may attempt to portray because of the challenge of capturing its profound complexity that scoops up the contradictions of being human and holds it tight. Not every writer can succeed. Nor every performer. But when you see Helena Zengel, a child performer born in 2008, in the hands of director Nora Fingscheidt in System Crasher, you will be in awe. This German-language film with English subtitles is part of the 2019 Eurofilm Festival being screened in several South African venues from the end of November.
It’s here where you meet Benni. She’s just nine years old – or nine and three quarters, to be precise – and of fair complexion and distinctive feistiness. She has been abandoned by not only her flighty young mum who goes through bad boyfriends with airy rapidity, but also the whole system itself. And her awareness and anger at this doesn’t make things easier for her.
As is the wont of German filmmaking, a lot in this film is told in gesture rather than words, and while you in the audience are not made privy to Benni’s back story, in all its grim details, you gather crumbs and snippets from the script and context that reveals a child who has cried herself into bed-wetting, fits and has irretrievably smashed her moral compass that may have otherwise prevented her from smashing a bully in the face, instinctively. But this is not a psychopath. This is a child who has capacity for empathy, albeit in the face of extremity.
This film is not a foray into popular psychiatry for the film-astute public. It’s not a peep show into mental illness pornography. While the mental health and therapeutic system stands in the wings, it is often posed with its proverbial hands raised in a sense of helplessness. Rather, this is a tale about the child herself. And so much of it doesn’t need to be described with the lancet specificity of words. Benni’s story is an indictment on a society in which it is too easy to renege on one’s responsibilities and too difficult to take over the abandoned responsibilities of others.
But it is the astonishingly sophisticated performance of Zengel that will chill you to your marrow. You see this child and may think of Barclay Wright’s portrayal of Jake in Alan Bleasdale’s devastating series Jake’s Progress. You see this child and understand that enormous, evolved empathy can come in packages that the world deems ‘too young’. Either way, you will never forget Benni.
- System Crasher is directed by Nora Fingscheidt and features a cast headed by Julia Becker, Fine Belger, Roland Bonjour, Matthias Brenner, Stella Brückner, Imke Büchel, Till Butterbach, Gisa Flake, Matilda Florczyk, Ida Goetze, Helena Gutscha, Lisa Hagmeister, Samantha Hanses, Sashiko Hara, Hadi Khanjanpour, Jannes Kupsch, Noah Lakmes, Cederic Mardon, Barbara Philipp, Jana Julia Roth, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Albrecht Schuch, Peter Schneider, Asad Schwarz, Bärbel Schwarz, Amelle Schwerk, Melanie Straub, Tedros Teclebrhan, Bruno Thiel, Moritz Thiel, Gennaro Trama, Victoria Trauttmansdorff, Marie von der Groeben, Louis von Klipstein, Axel Werner, Maryam Zaree and Helena Zengel. It is written by Nora Fingscheidt and produced by Peter Hartwig, Jakob Weydemann and Jonas Weydemann, it features creative input by John Gürtler (music), Yunus Roy Imer (cinematography), Stephan Bechinger and Julia Kovalenko (editing), Doris Borkmann, Lisa Stutzky and Juliane Voigtländer (casting), Maria-Luise Balzer (production design) and Ulé Barcelos (costumes). It is part of the European Film Festival, screening in South Africa during November.