British director Amma Asante has prioritised telling the stories of black and mixed-race characters in period films during her career so far – a genre where they often they are over-looked and ignored. Her breakthrough feature Belle starred Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a real-life historical figure in 18th century period costume and stately homes – which is a setting that is usually dominated by white actors on British television and in film. Her follow up A United Kingdom was set in the 1950s and starred David Oyelowo as the King of Botswana who falls in love with a white British woman. Now comes Where Hands Touch and stars Amandla Stenberg as a mixed-race German girl who falls in love with the son of a Nazi officer. Asante has shown herself to be an empathetic filmmaker, exploring the nuances of situations where characters struggle with their identities.
Twelve years in the making, this has been very much a passion project for Asante, involving a lot of historical research into the 25,000 people of colour who lived in Nazi Germany. This film focuses on those who were known as the ‘Rhineland Bastards’ and were the result of French soldiers of African descent being in that area during WWI. Leyna (Stenberg) is the product of one such union between a soldier and her mother (played by Bright Star’s Abbie Cornish). She has a younger brother who is white and as a result, Leyna feels very much the odd-one-out. Although she is happy and mostly accepted in her small community in the Rhineland, things are becoming increasingly dangerous. Her mother knows that if the Nazis come looking for Jewish people and find Leyna, they will probably just cart her away as well. Her mother believes that they will be able to disappear in Berlin, only to find that the big city brings its own problems.
Leyna must carry false papers with her, stating she has been sterilised (to prevent her mixing with white Germans). However, she meets and falls in love with Lutz (George MacKay), whose father (played by Christopher Eccleston) is a high-ranking Nazi. George MacKay has impressed me in Pride and Captain Fantastic and he does well again here, portraying a ‘gung-ho’ wannabe soldier, eager to get the front and join in the real fight. However, there is obviously another side to him, shown through the sensitive portrayal of his tender romance with Leyna. Amandla Stenberg was recently seen in Everything Everything with Nick Robinson and will soon be starring in The Hate U Give. She gives a fantastic performance here as a young woman, struggling to find her place in the world.
There has been some controversy surrounding this film – that it is insensitive to show a romance (which includes a Nazi soldier) against the backdrop of the Holocaust. This film does not ignore the Holocaust, but it does choose to focus more on a little-known aspect of the war, portraying a minority that did exist and most people would not have considered before. Also, I can understand, in our current times, why portraying a sympathetic Nazi is problematic. However, I think it is realistic to show how easily a German teenager could be brainwashed into believing the propaganda he has been fed, whilst also retaining his humanity and being capable of loving a mixed-race girl. The evil is an external pressure, rather than inherent within him. It also contrasts Lutz with his father, who is jaded due to having lived through WWI. However, his father still carries out despicable orders to save his own skin. This film does not present the issues as black-and-white, the characters are complex and flawed, but that does not mean you can’t feel something for them. It is Leyna’s relationship with her mother (and her own identity) that is perhaps the most moving aspect of the film though.
I believe this filmmaker, these actors and this story deserves your support, so if you are able to find Where Hands Touch in a movie theater near you, give it a chance. It is on selected release in the US now, UK release date is to be confirmed.
Directed by: Amma Asante
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Christopher Eccleston