For decades, filmmakers have been endlessly fascinated with telling the stories behind World War II, one of the darkest and tumultuous periods in history. Since the war’s conclusion, many stories emerged beyond the remains. However, there are still many aspects of history that were lost over time. There’s still so much we don’t know, and may never know. Despite the hundreds of films, documentaries, and books, some important parts of history fall between the cracks. In her latest film, director/writer Amma Asante aims to showcase a different perspective of Nazi Germany in Where Hands Touch.
Inspired by the hidden history of the cruelly-named Rheinlandbastarde, Where Hands Touch centers the story around a mixed-race German girl by the name of Leyna (Amandla Stenberg). Born of a French-Senegalese father and German mother (Abbie Cornish), Leyna struggles to find her place in an increasingly hostile Nazi Germany. Leyna loves her country, yet her own country demonstrates it doesn’t love her back. Believing herself to be a true German, Leyna initially believes she is safe from the wrath of the Third Reich.
Even though Leyna is German, she is treated like a second-class citizen. She is forced out of school, and into working in a factory with her mother. Leyna is also ordered to carry sterilization papers wherever she goes, in case she’s stopped by the Gestapo. Meanwhile, Leyna’s younger brother, Koen, (Tom Sweet) spends his days assimilating with the Hitler youth. Kerstin, Leyna’s mother tries her best to provide a better life for her children. She believes that moving to Berlin will be safer, but it proves to be exactly the opposite.
While in Berlin, Leyna has a chance run in with a young Nazi officer named Lutz (George MacKay) and sparks immediately fly. The couple sneaks off for romantic trysts about town where no one can see, putting themselves and their families in danger. The romance is a bit of a shocker, painting a “both-sides” debate in the film. Lutz is a “good guy” in a horrible situation, following his father’s footsteps. Once things take a turn for the worst, Leyna is shipped away to a concentration camp in Bavaria, and Lutz is ordered to guard at the same camp later on.
While Where Hands Touch has its tender moments, and manages to draw some teary eyes, its central romance becomes more outlandish as the film progresses, becoming borderline distasteful. Forbidden romances are often appealing, but there is something unsettling about a Nazi officer and a black German girl having romantic rendezvous in a concentration camp.
Where Hands Touch is well-intentioned, but it places its love story above all else. The story of black Germans is an important one, but the importance is sidelined for a pair of star-crossed lovers. Above all else, Leyna’s resilience in the claws of war, death, and hatred are what could make the film more powerful. Stenberg’s performance supports this fact. Throughout the film, Stenberg shines in role, portraying both a strength and vulnerability. George MacKay complements her well as Lutz. The performances from the leads are solid, yet it doesn’t deter from the weaker plot points.
Asante has a talent for retelling the lost stories of history, and her latest feature continues this trend. However, Asante’s prior work stands superior with films such as Belle and United Kingdom. Where Hands Touch was a golden opportunity to shed light on a little-known aspect of history, but it leaves audiences with almost nothing we don’t already know. As stated at the conclusion of the film, many of the Rhineland children perished in concentration camps, but those that survived defied Hitler’s Aryan vision of Germany. The subjects of black identity in Germany and nationalism have their moments in the film, but they are sidelined in favor of pushing an interracial storyline. Where Hands Touch believes that the love between two people will solve racism. It can help, but it’s not the end all, be all. Audiences, black audiences especially still need our stories to be told, and to be told well.