We live in a time of hot takes, and once people started seeing the trailer for filmmaker Amma Asante’s latest, Where Hands Touch, in which Amandla Stenberg stars as a young biracial German woman who falls for a young Nazi soldier, the hot takes came fast and furious. Check out the trailer; meet me on the other side.
I think we’re all rooting for Stenberg, who had maximal impact despite limited screen time as Rue in The Hunger Games. She’s since been great alongside Nick Robinson in the underseen teen romance Everything, Everything; was doing her best in the frustratingly stilted X-Men knockoff The Darkest Minds earlier this summer; and who will undoubtedly have her major breakout moment with this fall’s The Hate U Give, which Joelle recently checked out at TIFF. Stenberg has a great first-kissed face—a mixture of innocent, hesitant, and joyous—that she’s put to good use in Everything, Everything and in The Darkest Minds, and which she breaks out again here as Leyna, a 16-year-old German girl whose skin color becomes a major problem in 1944 as the Nazi regime begins to ramp up its Aryan-power intentions. (FYI: A lot of spoilers ahead for Where Hands Touch.)
Leyna has always known she’s different, she says, but “I really began to feel it” after her single mother (Abbie Cornish, stiff but effective, and with more to do than in Jack Ryan) moves Leyna and her younger brother to Berlin from the Rhineland so that the family can be “invisible” in a larger city. But Leyna doesn’t blend in any easier there, either; their neighbors whisper among themselves about the “Negro,” the other little boys who hang out with her brother call her a “mulatto,” and at school, her teacher asks her classmates, “Lena has facial features in common with people of which continent? … How does a girl like you come to have a name so Germanic as ‘Schlegel’?”
Leyna doesn’t know the whole story about how her mother fell in love with an African soldier during World War I, but she refuses to see herself as anything other than German, and her insistence that she be treated the same when clearly confronted with people who absolutely do not want to treat her that way is a kind of naiveté that slowly vanishes over the course of the film. But at first, it’s a sentiment shared too by Lutz (George MacKay, who was very good in Captain Fantastic alongside Viggo Mortensen), the son of a higher-up SS official (Christopher Eccleston!) who first notices Leyna while biking past the factory where her mother works.
He can’t keep his eyes off her, and there’s a bit of fetishization here (that I’m not sure the film intended) as Lutz learns Leyna’s name, finds out where she lives, and when they speak, compares her with the American jazz singers, also black women, that he sees featured on the contraband records and magazines his father owns. Lutz is desperate to go off to war to prove his masculinity and to defend Germany, and something about how fervently he cares about his country, and how genuinely Leyna believes that she is just as German as anyone else, brings them together.
You can expect what happens next: They fall in love, first touching hands—which the movie undermines as a momentous moment, because up until that point, the only person who touched Leyna was her family—and then kissing and, you know, doing more, and because Where Hands Touch is a movie that never lets a melodramatic opportunity pass it by, Leyna becomes pregnant from their sole sexual encounter. But one after another, tragedy strikes: Leyna’s mother is taken by German soldiers, with the heavy implication that she’s going to be abused and raped; Leyna’s younger brother, who was forced to join the Hitler Youth, exhibits some attitudes that suggest the white-power brainwashing is taking hold; and Lutz is unexpectedly sent away, with no word to Leyna of where he’s gone.
And again, you can expect what happens next: Leyna is taken to a labor camp, where she is stripped, where her hair is cut off, where she is called the n-word, where she must bear witness to violence and tragedy and trauma. To abide by German law, Leyna and her mother had lied and said the young woman was sterilized, so as not to mix her biracial blood with pure German blood—and so her pregnancy must be thoroughly hidden, utterly denied, unless Leyna wants to be murdered on the spot.
And again again, you can expect what happens next: Stationed at the camp is Lutz, disenfranchised by six months of serving in these places, overseeing people sent to their deaths, smelling their burning flesh (“The smoke never stops,” he tells Leyna), realizing with increasing disgust that the wartime experience he wanted to transform him into a man has instead turned him into something else, into someone who is complicit, into someone whose nationalism overrode his individualism. He wants to save Leyna and for them to start a new life together (“Did we do this together?” he wonders at her transformed body), but again again again, you can expect what happens next. This isn’t a movie with a happy ending. What Holocaust movie ever is?
I can understand if you don’t think there’s anything redeeming in what I’ve already described about Where Hands Touch, but Asante is a filmmaker whose pattern is to use period pieces to explore questions about black identity, and I think she’s done that well in 2013’s Belle with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and 2016’s A United Kingdom with David Oyelowo, and her focus here on telling the true story of 25,000 biracial children who were affected by the Holocaust—a historical reality I didn’t know about before this film—is laudable. Asante’s ideas, to explore questions of national identity vs. ethnic identity and to consider the complicated nature of interracial relationships, are fundamentally worthwhile; you get why the movie would open with a quote from James Baldwin (“There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it”), and how his statement frames the journey of Leyna’s character. On the flip side, the father/son relationship between Lutz and his father is handled with nuance, too, as they clash heads over and over again about what it means to be a good German and a good soldier, and Lutz’s father’s world-weariness and cynicism is a good counter to the young man’s insistence (and ignorance) that World War II will be an opportunity to prove himself, just as World War I was for his father’s generation. (Remember how Captain von Trapp argued with Rolf in The Sound of Music? It’s kind of like that.)
The movie spends a lot of time making it clear that Lutz isn’t like those other Nazis who strip people in the streets and who demand to see their uncircumcised penises, and that Leyna isn’t a victim, but someone who headed into a romantic relationship of her own free will and who intentionally went against her mother’s wishes and warnings. Throughout its 2-hour run time, Where Hands Touch tries really, really hard to make this a film about individuals operating within power structures and oppressive regimes that are outside of their control, and who turn to each other as a way to find love and solace in terrifying times … and yet.
Could these questions of identity be explored without a romance that seems to normalize Nazis at a time when we sure as fuck don’t want to normalize Nazis? Probably. Could the film have made choices that didn’t encourage us to get swept up into this romance; maybe fewer swelling strings during their first kiss or their sex scene? Undoubtedly. And overall, could this story—of the struggle of these innocent people to survive a government that wanted them wiped off the face of the Earth—been delivered in a way that wasn’t, if we’re being really simplistic, boiled down to “kids from different sides of the tracks fall in love”? Yes, I think so. Asante isn’t doing anything outside of her cinematic lane with Where Hands Touch, but at this time, in this nightmare reality of 2018, her fourth film doesn’t make the impact she might have wanted.
Where Hands Touch is currently in limited release in the U.S.
Image sources (in order of posting): Vertical Entertainment, Vertical Entertainment, Vertical Entertainment