Ellen Goldberg, PhD, is a Child Neuropsychologist and a Psychotherapist Member of BPSI. Olga Umansky, MLIS, is a BPSI Librarian and Archivist. Their remarks below originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of the library newsletter, which can be read here.
System Crasher is a 2019 German drama film directed by Nora Fingscheidt and available on Netflix. The film received various European nominations and eight German film awards for best film, best director, best writing as well as best actor and best actress. While the jury praised the script as a “nightmarish, sensitive and carefully researched commentary on our educational system”, critics defined its style as “body cinema”, noting its unpolished plot and raw energy. The story portrays a 9-year old girl Benni (played by Helene Zengel) who is aggressive and easily provoked into outbursts of rage. Because of this repeated behavior, she has been suspended from special schools and residential programs. No foster family can risk taking Benni, as she has brutally attacked other children in the families time after time. We get a glimpse into Benni childhood trauma (she does not let people touch her face, because diapers were pressed in her face when she was an infant). We also learn that all Benni wants is to live with her mother again. Her mother seems to be particularly afraid of Benni: she has two more young children and is living with an abusive boyfriend. She promises Benni she will leave him, but repeatedly fails to do so. She also fails to show up for Benni’s appointments with social workers, when emergency decisions have to be made about Benni’s future. There are several people who don’t give up on Benni: her social worker Frau Bafane keeps looking for solutions. She hires an anger management trainer Micha who takes Benni to a cabin in the woods and manages to connect with her. The movie, however, does not fall into a familiar plotline where a troubled child gets saved by a father figure. In the end, Benni turns against Micha as well.
Her mother hunger is so raw; it is gut-wrenching to watch. One of the strongest scenes in the movie is Benni’s animal-like howling for her mother in the forest. It stops you in your tracks and brings you closer to her suffering. From a clinical perspective, Benni’s desire for a parenting figure is immediately turned inward by her terror of closeness. Her knowledge of the mother’s inevitable rejection turns to rage. She is in a continuing dance with her mother over this rejection. The same pattern repeats with other caretakers. The seesaw of self-soothing and destruction penetrates the movie. The last scene is of Benni as she leaps into the air, smiling, as if she is taking flight. The smile on her face is a repetition of the seesaw. The deep sorrow overtakes the viewer, as the frame freezes and cracks like broken glass. Is this a shuttering of the last chance to save Benni?
We can imagine that many child therapists in our community have seen different versions of Bennis at some points in their careers. There is something very realistic about her capacity to seduce the therapist or social worker. Several adults in the movie desperately try to help Benni. The seduction backfires. Micha, the social worker who has opened his home for Benni letting her stay overnight, endangers his wife, his newborn child, and his professional career. The boundary violation is evident. The seduction plays out as repetition compulsion. Benni’s ability to be liked and get under the skin of her teacher, her prospective foster mother, her social worker is astounding. Every time it turns into a rejection and destruction, as though she has to spit out any image of a good mother. It makes one wonder what it felt for the adult actors to play the part of Benni’s caretakers. Could they keep the distance or did they get pulled into her internal drama? Was the young actress who played this child with a broken psyche able to completely separate from such an intense role? Helen Zengel is a rising star currently filming in the United States, so it will be interesting to see who she becomes in the next movie.
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