|Helena Zengel as Benni|
I had a student once who terrified me. Not physically. He presented himself as rather soft-spoken, and to look at him was to see a rather handsome young man, not a bully, not a gangster, not a low-life. What sent chills up my spine was the steady accumulation of evidence that he seemed to be entirely lacking in empathy. He showed no emotion over the suffering of others, no interest in their opinions, no apparent awareness that outside of his totally enclosed world there were others seeking friends and engaging in collaborative efforts to get things done.
He announced once in class, in a complete non sequitur, that his mother had just had another abortion. I said nothing. It could only have been an attention-seeking mechanism. I could have lectured him on the inappropriate nature of that outburst, but, given the shocked reaction of his classmates, that would have been redundant and, I expect, only fueled his craving. I could have asked him to leave the room, but that wouldn’t have cleared the air, either. We moved on to other things without comment.
I ran into him years later, in the subway. He took a seat next to me, asked me if I remembered him. I said of course I did and asked him how he was doing. He was working in a bank and to all appearances he seemed quite normal. Perhaps I was wrong about him, I thought, but there was something in his eyes that kept me from pursuing the conversation. I reached my stop, wished him well, and never saw him again.
The memory of this guy has haunted me ever since. Knowing him forced me to come to terms with the limitations of my talents as a teacher. Since I define education as an interaction with the whole person, I have been called on many times over the years to act as counselor, and in some cases as mentor, as much as instructor. With this guy, I could only hope there were others out there who might perform that service. I was not up to it.
I have been reliving the memory of this student since I happened upon a German movie last night called Systemsprenger - the English title is System Crasher - about a nine-year-old sociopath. Abused as a baby, she explodes into uncontrolled violence anytime anybody touches her face, or randomly when things don’t go her way, and she resists all attempts by the child welfare system to find a place for her. Her mother rejects her because she's afraid of the harm she's almost certain to bring to her younger siblings. The term “system crasher” is not an official one, but it is used informally among child therapists to refer to children who seem to be beyond anyone’s capacity to handle.
People have made movies about monster children before. If it’s fiction, one can expect them to be portrayed as some kind of “bad seed.” With non-fiction, probably in a documentary focusing on one or another social failure: abusive parenting, the lack of public awareness of problem children who get sucked into drugs or are conscripted into gangs. Or the horrors of a foster care system with revolving doors, or some other failure to do right by children requiring special attention.
Writer and director Nora Fingscheidt took a different tack. She lets the story unfold without villains or judgment, and in the end leaves us hanging. Some things in life, she seems to be saying, remain mysteries. Not all of life's challenges get resolved.
I doubt Ms. Fingscheidt could have made this film in an American context. We don't like stories without resolution, where the bad guy gets away with murder and evil just sits there and stares at you. I’m guessing most Americans who watch the film will find it too frustrating for words. For one thing, the tantrums are endless, and for another, one by one, those who care for the girl - Benni is her name - are drawn in either by the power of her personality or by their natural desire to come to a child’s aid, whereupon they are chewed up and spat out.
This degree of frustration would be simply too much to bear, and folks would, I’m sure, leave the theater in droves, were it not for one of the most astonishingly powerful child acting performances - maybe the most powerful - I’ve ever seen. Benni is played by an 11-year old actor named Helena Zengel. “Helli” might actually carry the film alone, but she gets help from at least two others in the cast, Mrs. Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), the head of the child welfare office, who collapses in a heap at some point in exhaustion, and Micha (Albrecht Schuch), a guy Mrs. Bafané calls in whose history of rising out of similar abusive childhood conditions would seem to make him the ideal candidate to handle this problem child with some sort of tough love. Together, they give a riveting performance.
Watch it for the acting. And then see if you can escape the nagging question of whether there are children beyond help. And whether medicating children into adulthood is the only path for some extreme cases. Not a theme for the faint of heart. But if you’re up for it, a great example of the power of film to tell an important story.
Nominated for a whole host of international film awards. It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 96%.
Available on Netflix Streaming