Interview by Hugo Emmerzael / @HugoEmmerzael
"I’m still fascinated by people with extreme energy, even when it's self destructive.”
Bennni is a system crasher. This may sound like a hacker from a 1990s cybercrime movie, but in reality it’s a very grave thing to be. At the age of nine, this girl (a truly remarkable role for Helena Zengel) has already gone through so many stages of child foster care that the German pedagogical system ceases to work for her. The implication of this description–"ein Systemsprenger"–is that it’s Benni who breaks the rules of how to behave in society.
Nora Fingscheidt’s explosive, yet thoughtful film Systemsprenger / System Crasher shows us another reality: it’s the system that was never whole in the first place. Not that people don’t try; the amount of professionals invested in the life of protagonist Benni is truly remarkable. Yet, they never find the structural environment that this severely traumatised child needs. Thus, Benni kicks and screams her way through girlhood, trying to carve out a space for herself that seems impossible to manifest.
Benni’s a tough character to portray because she’s aggressive, spiteful and out of bounds, while at the same time being totally loveable and innocent. Ultimately, she’s like any other child – or human being for that matter – someone in need of stability, care and attention.
The real tragedy of the film is that everybody feels this, but somehow the trappings of society can’t meet such widespread emotional yearning. So Benni keeps on breaking the rules in her fight against a broken system. With bright, propulsive music and kinetic cinematography, Fingscheidt finds an infectious film language that manages to capture Benni’s almost uncontainable energy. Fingscheidt sat down with Electric Ghost Magazine during Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to talk about this loving, aggressive film that apparently took a lot out of its director too.
Electric Ghost Magazine: Where do you even begin with capturing Benni’s wild energy on film?
Nora Fingscheidt: This was a very personal motivation for me. While not as aggressive as Benni, I also was a wild child in my youth. So I’m still fascinated by people with extreme energy, even when it’s self-destructive. We tried to translate Bennie’s energy to all the aspects of the film: the editing, but also the music, the rhythm, the sound design.
You’ve managed to visualise her subjective views on the world too. What was that process like – of cinematically approaching Benni’s interiority?
It was trial and error. I tried to write some of her nightmares in the script and it was just really, really bad. Everyone said ‘Oh, god Nora, it’s so cliché and cheesy!’ They advised me to just cut it out. I knew what they meant, but I still left it in the script like a stand-in. It served to remind us to look for nightmarish images during the shoots. We were restricted with Helena’s schedule; child actors have to leave the set after five hours of work, so we were often left with the team to shoot more experimental stuff. Like, 'what do we have today? Oh some toys! Let’s take another lens, use some crazy lighting and shoot'. We shot hours of this really strange experimental stuff and tried to combine it during editing.
It reminds me of the films of Andrea Arnold. She allows more primal aspects of people’s lives in her film too.
Perhaps. It was not our main inspiration, I must say, but I see what you mean.
"At first, I thought the system was plain bad, but directly after my first research period I felt like I met people that do their jobs out of very positive intentions."
Helena Zengel as Benni in Systemsprenger (2019)
What did attract you to this idea of the Systemsprenger in the first place?
I’ve done several attempts to write a script about it, but I didn’t have a plot yet. While I was shooting another project, a documentary about a shelter for homeless women, I found a real "dead-end" place of society. You don’t want to end up there. Yet, a girl shows up. I was shocked and asked the social worker what a girl is doing here and she replied: ‘Oh, that’s a system crasher. We can always take them in after their fourteenth birthday.’ That was the first time I heard that term. 'System crasher? What’s that?' She replied: ‘It means that no institution in the country dares to take her in.’ That was the moment I began developing the story again.
What do you think of the term? It implies that the system is not at fault here, but that it’s the kids that break it.
The term is very interesting in the way that it has seemingly nothing to do with the children. It sounds more like somebody exploded something.
Or like a bug in a computer.
Like a hacker movie or a terrorist film, or a G20 protest! But you don’t think of children. That’s why many people wanted to change the title of the movie. Even during shooting people complained about it.
One of the most inspiring things is how many adults come together for roundtable sessions to discuss Benni’s future. There’s like ten people summoned to discuss the life of one girl. And yet nothing really works out as planned. In what light did you want to portray this system?
I actually lived in an institution to try to understand its sensitive dynamics. If you show a girl that goes to so many institutions, you have to understand how they all operate differently. At first, I thought the system was plain bad, but directly after my first research period I felt like I met people that do their jobs out of very positive intentions. It’s the structure of the system that makes it really hard for them. Not every child fits in these suggested structures. For me, it would be wrong to just blame the system and depict it as a collection bad human beings. At the same time, you have to understand that this is just a job and that it’s virtually impossible to manage it correctly.
A particularly interesting scene shows how one of the professionals struggles with rescue fantasies. He also knows that acting upon these fantasies is against the rules. Is this a common thing?
That’s really the most difficult part of the job. You have to have a connection with the child otherwise you cannot really have an influence. The children also really have to love you for you to do something about their situation. Yet, you can’t just take every child in your home. It’s a huge dilemma and something that I personally couldn’t deal with too. I wouldn’t be able to do that job, because I would never be able to draw the line of where to stop.
"I kept visiting these institutions and as a result I could feel my view on the world darkening. I couldn’t even go on the bus without seeing abusive parents and abused children."
Lisa Hagmeister (left) & Helena Zengel (right)
Being a dedicated filmmaker, I can imagine that maintaining distance is also hard for you.
I too have a problem with boundaries and figuring out when and where to stop. I can get totally lost in writing and researching to an extent it’s not healthy anymore.
You’ve been working on this for more than five years, right?
Six years! There was even a time when I had to stop researching for more than a year. I kept visiting these institutions and as a result I could feel my view on the world darkening. I couldn’t even go on the bus without seeing abusive parents and abused children. I’m a mother too. I have an eight year old son and I felt like I was losing the capacity to be a good parent myself. So I had to stop.
That must have been frightening. What helped you to get back into the project?
I made another film in between. I wanted to work on a fiction film, but I couldn’t get the financing through. Then I decided to shoot it as a documentary. The film is called Without This World / Ohne diese Welt (2017) and it takes place in Argentina, in this religious sect that seems stuck in the 17th century. Its members basically came from Friesland in The Netherlands, so they speak an ancient mixture of Dutch and German and they don’t know where they are on planet earth, because their only schoolbook is the Bible. It really seems as if they still live five hundred years in the past. We spend three months in this colony. We lived together and shared their lifestyle. I regained my worldview there. When I was on the other side of the planet, watching the stars in a colony without any electricity, internet or phones, I thought: 'the world is really diverse. It’s not just only bad.' This is something that I still have to remind myself of sometimes. Only when I came back, I could work on this script again.
Systemsprenger premiered as part of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival and screened as part of the 54th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Hugo Emmerzael is a film and music critic based in Amsterdam. He is an editor of monthly independent Dutch film magazine De Filmkrant and has written for Senses of Cinema, Gonzo Circus, Beneficial Shock and Frameland.
Published August 21, 2019