Where Hands Touch (2018)

Where Hands Touch
Director: Amma Asante
Writer: Amma Asante
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston, Tom Goodman-Hill, Alec Newman, Will Attenborough
Part of: Toronto International Film Festival
Seen on: 9.9.2018

Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) is a German bi-racial teenager. When Hitler rises to power in Germany, she gets caught between the lines: her German-ness is disputed because of the color of her skin, no matter how hard Leyna fights for her place. Lutz (George MacKay), on the other hand, is just what the nazis like: blond, German, member of the Hitler youth and son of a high-ranking SS officer (Christopher Eccleston). When the two of them meet, they are drawn to each other, but they are in the worst position to live their love.

Where Hands Touch tackles a really interesting topic that hasn’t been looked at a lot (at least in popular media): what happened with and to black Germans in World War Two? Unfortunately, the way it goes about it, is a little clumsy.

The film poster showing Amandla Stenberg in front of a building with nazi flags and airplanes flying over it.

There have been many movies about World War II, but I think this is the first film I ever saw that looks at the position of black Germans in the War (how fittingly that it is tackled by a black woman). Leyna herself is fiercely nationalist. Of course, she feels German. She is German. She grew up there, her mom is from there, she never knew anything else. That black Germans is something that really doesn’t fit into nazi ideology means that Leyna finds herself and her identity being questioned all the time. That conflict between “I am German” and “Germany doesn’t think I am German” is very well done in the film.

Unfortunately Asante chooses to combine this with a nazi love story – a difficult and mostly outright harmful trope built on the reassurance that not all Germans were evil, even when they were wearing nazi uniforms and doing nazi shit: not everyone really believed all that nazi stuff. Lutz is just a kid. Hitler youth membership is mandatory. He is being pressured by his father. He feels the injustice and is still be able to fall in love with Leyna, doesn’t that make him a good person? That kind of love story is aggravating to say the least.

George MacKay and Amandla Stenberg in the film.

In the case of Where Hands Touch, it becomes even worse because both Leyna and Lutz are fiercely nationalist and both spout antisemitic ideas and statements – none of which are outright challenged. The film doesn’t pretend that what the nazis did to Jews (and others) isn’t bad, but it does leave room for a “what the nazis did is really bad but some antisemitism is just normal” interpretation that is entirely unnecessary. The thing is, it could have been avoided and it would have made things even more interesting if Leyna had fallen in love with a Jewish boy. It would have been the perfect opportunity to look at how differently the persecution of those two groups was – and where they overlapped.

That being said, Stenberg gives an awesome performance. The film is well-told and well-made and it is definitely worth seeing to gain some insight into this particular angle of badness of the nazis. I just would have loved it if it had done without this kind of love story.

Amandla Stenberg in the film.

Summarizing: I’m conflicted about it, but give it a try anyway.

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