Nora Fingscheidt’s feature film debut follows the story of a little girl with wild energy and behaviour, that seems to be uncontrollable and is driving everyone around her crazy.
WEEKEND: System crasher is the unofficial term used to describe children who don’t fit into any existing structures. How did you get familiar with this concept and where did you draw your inspiration to explore it?
Nora Fingscheidt: During the shooting of a documentary about a shelter home for homeless women, I heard the term “system crasher” for the first time. A 14-year-old girl moves into this place, because no institution in the whole country dared to take that girl in anymore. I was shocked by that fact and immediately started a research that lasted over four years.
You worked on this project for a long time. Can you tell us about your researching process and when you decided that you were ready to kick off your feature film debut?
I always wanted to make a film about a wild and angry little girl. This has partly auto-biografical reasons. But I never had the story for it, only the main character. When I then had my first encounter with a “system crasher”, I immediately knew that this was going to be my first feature film. I researched in different institutions, sometimes I lived there, sometimes I just worked there. Usually for about one or two weeks. It was important for me to understand the tone of the everyday life. How do people talk to each other? Apart from this research, I did around 50 interviews with people who work in the child care system and also with ex “system crashers”.
"I always wanted to make a film about a wild and angry little girl. This has partly auto-biografical reasons. But I never had the story for it, only the main character. When I then had my first encounter with a “system crasher”, I immediately knew that this was going to be my first feature film."
It is often said that shooting with kids is quite challenging. How did you cope with that? And why did you decide to introduce yourself to the feature film industry with the story of 9-year-old Benni?
It was important for me that Benni is not yet in puberty. Because it is such an easy answer for violent behavior: oh, the rebellious teenagers. Also, I tried to avoid the other stereotypes to explain her violence - she doesn’t live in a poor Berlin high-rise neighborhood and she doesn’t have any ethnical background from other cultures. Also, she is not a boy. So all the easy answers don’t work anymore and the audience has to deal with the behavior of 9-year-old German middle class girl from a middle sized town. And taken all that away, they have to ask themselves: why is she behaving like this? I think that violence, especially from young children is a cry for help. It is a way to say: something is not ok in my life.
Can you tell us about the casting process? Helena Zengel playing Benni was only 11 years old when you shot the film and she is doing a fantastic job playing such a complex role. How did you find her?
Actually, it was quite easy. Helena was the seventh girl in casting. During the process of writing I always thought that I am never going to find a girl who can play that role. And I thought that, even if I found her, the parents will never allow it. But then Helena came into the room and it was immediately clear that she is extremely talented. Still, I casted 150 more girls because I thought that it couldn’t be that easy. But I always came back to her in my mind. When we decided to work together we prepared the role for 6 month. It was very important that she never gets confused between Benni and herself.
How did you visually and aesthetically address the inner turmoil, Benni feels?
It was a process of trial and error. Always when Helena left the set, we experimented with what we had there and used macro-lenses or colorful lamps. Since we didn’t have a lot of budget, we had to find a very “cheap” solution to create abstract and emotional pictures. In the end it was a delicate process in the editing room to find out what really works and what doesn’t.
After watching the film it seems easy to be judgemental about what is good or what is bad when it comes to Benni. What would you like to communicate with ‘System Crasher’ and how would you like the audience to reflect upon it?
My main goal is to create an understanding for children like Benni. If the audience puts themselves for two hours in Benni’s shoes, if they fear for her because of herself, but at the same time love her and hope for her, then all I ever wanted is achieved. Because usually we hear about children like Benni when it’s too late. When they grow up and commit violent crimes. Often we read about them in newspapers as if they were monsters, but there is always a story behind. And usually these stories start at a very early age.
In Germany the film is rising a lot of discussion about what could prevent to avoid such “system crasher” - careers. That is amazing! That is even more than I hoped. The film is fiction and not a documentary, but if it leads to discussion about real life then I am really happy. There is no easy answer or solution. If there was one, people would just do it and we didn’t have the problem. But some children need very individual solutions and sometimes it is tricky to find the very one solution for this very one child.
"My main goal is to create an understanding for children like Benni. If the audience puts themselves for two hours in Benni’s shoes, if they fear for her because of herself, but at the same time love her and hope for her, then all I ever wanted is achieved."
What can we expect from you next? Do you have any future projects you would like to share with us?
I am working on a new film, but I didn’t write the script for this one. It is still too early to talk about it, but the shooting will take place in Vancouver, Canada. Also, I am writing my own stuff, but that can take a while. I am very slow when it comes to development. It took me 5 years to write “System Crasher”.