There is something about Benni. She hates her full name, the staid-sounding Bernadette. She hates everything and everyone around her. The only person she has any love for is her mother, a woman who cannot reciprocate.
System Crasher is a fascinating but ultimately exhausting portrait of a little girl who has learnt as a baby that the only way to save yourself is to attack. Benni, nine, has been shunted from one group home to another. These are holding pens for kids who do not comply with the system: by being who they are, they crash it, and become a problem for the state, the bunch of educators whose job it is to maintain a semblance of order, and parents who cannot deal with their own children.
Director Nora Fingscheidt paints a vivid, disturbing picture of a wild child. Benni is as unpredictable as a volcano: a quiet moment can turn into a catastrophe because the little girl can go from lying quietly on the sofa to someone who can pick up a blunt object and hit a human head with it; or bang her own head against a car window. She can turn on anyone, even those who care for her, despite herself.
You can see this damaged little girl as a product of a system which has the money to create shelters for abandoned children, even if those resources are stretched to their limit. Or you can see her as someone who genuinely has no idea of how it is to control their feelings. A girl like Benni, feral, violent, prone to causing damage to others and herself would be locked up and the key thrown away in countries which do not have strong welfare systems. We get a close look at the people whose mission is to save these children from themselves, and you can see their building frustration when nothing seems to work with Benni.
Helena Zengel is terrific as Benni: it is a hard thing to do, to pull off a fully dislikeable character and still keep us with her, and Zengel manages it beautifully. But finally the film is a slog. There is no redemptive arc to her, and to the film. A few years ago, Lynne Ramsay’s powerful We Need To About Kevin gave us a chilling young man whom no one, not even his mother, played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton could penetrate.
In that one, we are left with a sliver of hope. Here you are not given that luxury. And that leaves us with that ever-lingering question: are most humans programmed for optimism? Do we, despite all the worst-case scenarios, keep hoping against hope? And that seems to hold true for us, even the most case-hardened film critics, huddling in our winter jackets in 2 degrees-out weather, thronging the theatres at the Berlinale.
Francois Ozon’s By The Grace Of God is an exploration of individual faith and the collectivism of organized religion. It is based on the real-life case of Father Bernard Preynat who was charged in 2016 with multiple cases of sexual abuse by his now grown-up victims, the whole process started by a man who discovers, quite by accident, that the priest is back working with young boys.
The battle to get justice is a long and lonely road, especially if the harm was done when the victim is young, defenceless and has no way of stopping it. We see three men who have got by, somehow, by putting a lid on their feelings, by trying to forget the trauma of abuse, by being marked by it.
It’s not just the church that is complicit, and turns a blind eye on the doings of its own. It’s also the parents and elder siblings who don’t do anything to save the kids, and that is a far greater betrayal. Ozon’s film could have been better. There are places when the tension slides, when the telling becomes banal, but it remains a worthy story, despite its flaws.
Redemption, even if it comes late, can be a sweet, sweet thing.