A courageous decision for a courageous film: Nora Fingscheidt's debut film "System Crasher" has been selected to represent Germany at the 2020 Academy Awards. Here's why it's an unusual choice.
Every once in a while, Germany has submitted films with a focus on social issues for the Oscar in the category Best International Feature Film. Still, it came as a big surprise when Nora Fingscheidt's debut film, System Crasher, was selected by the committee set up by German Films — the national information and advisory center for the promotion of the country's cinema worldwide.
Unlike successful past German entries that deal with the Nazi era or East German history, System Crasher is not about history at all.
Focus on history
The last three German Academy Award winners have plots either firmly set in Germany's past or which explore the consequences of history: The Tin Drum, Nowhere in Africa and The Lives of Others.
System Crasher is a surprising choice because the film managed to beat five other shortlisted works that would have fit the standard mold of German entries for the Oscars over the past years, as they focused on historical topics.
Outrivaling the competition
The German Lesson, based on the 1968 novel by Siegfried Lenz, would have been a match for The Tin Drum, while the film Sealed Lips is about a bitter time in early East German history. The Collini Case dissects the West German justice system's handling of Nazi crimes and the documentary Heimat is a Space in Time deals with the director's own family history spanning several generations. Finally, the biopic All About Me takes a cheerful, in parts melancholic, look at the immediate post-war era in Germany. Only Jan-Ole Gerster's film Lara and Fingscheidt's System Crasher didn't fit the "coming to terms with history" mold.
"We had an intensive, constructive debate in which we tried to weigh different aspects," says Frederic Jaeger, head of the German Films jury, about this year's decision to send a stirring social drama to the Oscar race. Of course, he says, the jury also assessed German films that had been successful in the past — and what they were about. "In the end we did not decide against historical material," he told DW. "We decided in favor of this contemporary film because we see it as an outstanding candidate."
'Rich in nuances'
System Crasher celebrated its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February, and won the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize.
It tells the story of Benni, a nine-year-old girl who grows up in children's homes and foster families. Time and again, the child rebels against teachers and foster parents. Hardly anyone gets along with her, with the exception of a young teacher who normally works with young offenders but who manages to reach Benni. In the end, even he finally fails because of the young girl's anger and unrestrained emotions.
Benni is a "system crasher" in the sense that she cannot be integrated into any institution. "The film is multi-layered and rich in nuances, with a hurricane in the middle, surrounded by rain, clouds and sunshine: Nora Fingscheidt has shot an incredibly dynamic movie, exceptionally well-cast and staged, about a difficult subject, with a humanistic view and a desire for cinema narration," Jaeger says.
What awaits children like Benni?
"We made this film in order to raise awareness for children like Benni," director Nora Fingscheidt says. "The procession of homes, the permanent change of caregivers — how is a child whose only continuity is change supposed to find support anywhere at all?"
The director, born in Braunschweig in 1983, has given the film a cinematic form that accounts for its great strength. Her debut is anything but a dry social study: System Crasher is dynamic, the acting is thrilling — and the movie goes right to the audience's hearts.
Oscars more open these days
But will the movie manage to convince the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, too? The academy awarding the Oscars has changed in recent years; more female and African-American filmmakers have been appointed to better reflect diversity. The era favoring a guard of old, white men who only ever bestowed awards on a particular type of film may be over.
"We believe Academy members should at least consider the film," says Jaeger. After all, he adds, System Crasher tells the story of a social system the US can only dream of, today in particular.
The film's success at various festivals could prove Frederic Jaeger and the German Films jury right. After the crowned premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, System Crasher toured several festivals in Asia and Europe and went on to win several other awards. It is setting an example for German cinema, says Jaeger. "We are counting on the film to arouse the curiosity of the Academy members."