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BERLINALE 2019 Competition

Nora Fingscheidt • Director of System Crasher

“I’d always wanted to tell a story about a wild little girl”


- BERLIN 2019: After the premiere of System Crasher in competition, German director Nora Fingscheidt tells Cineuropa why it’s important to change, or indeed crash, systems

Nora Fingscheidt  • Director of System Crasher
(© Philip Leutert)

Shown in the main competition of the 69th Berlin Film Festival, Nora Fingscheidt’s cinematic ball of condensed energy, System Crasher [+see also:
film review
interview: Nora Fingscheidt
film profile
, focuses on little Benni (Helena Zengel) – the titular “system crasher”, for whom the child and welfare services just can’t seem to find a proper solution. Plagued by uncontrollable bouts of bad behaviour and fits of rage, she quickly isolates herself from those she cares about the most. Even her own mother.

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Cineuropa: It’s always tricky when you make films with kids, but in System Crasher, Helena Zengel is almost in every scene. How did you handle that?
Nora Fingscheidt: There are many restrictions when you decide to work with children in Germany. But we had many shooting days, and even though when you watch the film it seems like she is just screaming all the time, we always had days with quiet scenes. I met Helena during our very first casting session. I thought I would never find a girl who could play this role, and there she was – girl number seven. I thought she was amazing. I never imagined a blonde girl playing the “system crasher”, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind. She was the only one who could show this aggression, but there is something fragile about her, too. Before committing to the project, I wanted her to read the script, which she did with her mum, to make sure she knew what she was doing. We started to work together six months before the shoot in order to get to know Benni’s world.

The term “system crashers is new to us. How did you discover these kids?
Six years ago, I was working on a documentary about a shelter home for homeless women. Then a 14-year-old girl moved in, and I was shocked. She was so young! The social worker said: “Well, that’s the ‘system crasher’. We can always take them in on their 14th birthday.” I’d always wanted to tell a story about a wild little girl. I was quite a wild child myself, and in films, girls are always so cute and so quiet. I felt that by telling this story, I could combine something personal with something socially relevant. Of course, many “system crashers” are teenage boys, but there are also children – some even younger than Benni.

It’s her story, but she is shown interacting with some very different adults: her flaky mother, educators and teachers. How did you want to portray these bonds?
First of all, I didn’t want to place the blame on the system. It’s very flexible, it changes every year, and there are real people behind it. And they also have feelings. The people I met all want to help, but they struggle and eventually fail. And that’s not to mention that the circumstances make it difficult, because if you have one Benni in a group of ten children, what do you do with the other nine? You have to protect them. I could understand their dilemma. The main conflict comes from within Benni, not from the outside. To me, that’s what made this story interesting.

It’s a fiction film: very well researched, but we made little exceptions here and there, and it’s certainly not a documentary. Still, everything is based on real situations. Things happen, and if a child suddenly turns up in front of your door, asking to stay, what can you do? But of course, nobody wants to talk about it, because it’s a professional no-go. I just needed to enable people to understand why they give up at one point.

It’s very significant that the least satisfying relationship in her life is the one with her mother, who is visibly scared of her daughter’s outbursts.
This is definitely what Benni is lacking, but I wouldn’t dare to say it’s a generalised problem in Germany. Every child needs unconditional love, and not every child gets it. It has always been like this – it’s this tragic human need. It’s not a new phenomenon, and that goes for film as well – take François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. He told a similar story, 60 years ago, about children lacking the love of their parents, fighting for it and yet still not getting it. Interestingly, Benni’s story would be very different in different places – during the Berlinale Talents’ Script Station, someone told me that in their country, after a few rejections, a child like that would just end up living on the street. So it’s a general topic of children lacking love, but this is a very German way of telling it. Not everyone is lucky to have a safe and stable home, so this story needs to be told again and again.

Going back to what you said about wanting to make this film about a girl, is that why it’s just drenched in pink? She is not exactly your typical tomboy.
Some people still think she is a boy – at least for the first 20 minutes. I actually wanted her to move like a little boy because she is a fighter. She needs to have thick skin in order to survive. But I also surround her with these powerful, emotional colours: red, pink, orange and yellow. Not because pink is a feminine colour, but of course, the movie plays around with this concept of predisposed gender roles as well. It’s important to change systems. For me, I never had this feeling that somebody was holding me back, but I come from a different generation. I am really thankful to all of the female filmmakers that came before me for fighting this fight.

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