If there was one kind word to describe Amma Asante’s interracial love story set in Nazi Germany, it would be “ambitious.” Indeed, the writer/director aspires to hit many points in her film: An introduction to fascist Germany’s contentious relationship with interracial people, the forced sterilization of black Germans, labor camps during World War II, etc. These topics are all interesting avenues to explore. However, Where Hands Touch fails to provide a proper, deep dive into this, and instead grounds this story in romance. This choice is not only troubling for a variety of reasons, but it also becomes the source of the film’s downfall.
Where Hands Touch begins in Germany in 1944. Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) is the 15-year-old daughter of a white, German mother (Abbie Cornish) and a black, African father. During this era, multiracial children born of similar circumstances were known as the “Rhineland bastards,” and they were persecuted with a push for obligatory sterilization to keep German bloodlines “pure.” Leyna meets Lutz (George MacKay), the son of a prominent Nazi soldier and a member of the Hitler Youth, and they form a romantic relationship.
Just the thought of a black, German girl being in a relationship with someone who is a Nazi and proudly wears the swastika is revolting. Seeing the relationship develop on screen is much worse. The story works to make Lutz seem like a compassionate character — he’s gentle with Leyna, and at one point, even sneaks foods to her while she’s held at a labor camp. However, Lutz’s sincerity does not resonate on screen as well as one would expect it to,the most obvious reason being his allegiance to Hitler.
Likewise, there’s a running commentary throughout the film from Leyna herself that stresses how she is German. At first, you may think that she’s perhaps asserting her right to the heritage she’s entitled to, as a person born on German soil. But as the film progresses, her actions show that this is also a way for her to assert her own “purity.” At one point, Leyna recounts what happened with a teen, who worked in the grocery with her mother and brother. She shares how he was shot in the street, when it was discovered he was Jewish. While reprimanding her brother in this conversation, Leyna reflects on this incident, saying the boy was a good Jew.” The distinction between “good” and “bad” Jewish people in this moment helps the audience t realize that despite all the blatant racism Leyana is confronted with, she a does subscribe to German nationalism. Toward the end of the film, Leyana does come to terms with who she is, telling Lutz “Germany told us the world is against us, and yet all I see is Germany killing its own people.” Unfortunately, the damage has already been done.
Perhaps the most frightening message is conveyed at the end of the film, as Lutz and Leyna plan to escape the Bavarian labor camp Leyna is held in. Leyna is pregnant with their child — a grave offence at the time. When speaking about her fears of the baby dying in the camp, Leyna states,“[The baby] and I will be the evidence of all that she and I are, and all that they’ve tried to deny. That I am a German Negro.”
Leveraging your offspring as the hope for the future seems warm, but the reality of that child being the product of Leyna’s romance with a Nazi cannot be overlooked. In Germany, it is estimated that 800 Afro-German children were killed during WWII, with the country destroying records of their existence after. Today, while there are more multiracial people globally, racism is still prevalent. The history of these children has been erased, making Leyna’s rallying cry for the “evidence they’ve tried to deny” nonexistent.
Where Hands Touch is a waste of solid acting by Amandla Stenberg, and time for its viewers. Asante’s attempt to make Nazi characters appear sympathetic is a perfect example of not reading the room, especially in this contentious time in our country. It’s safe to say that Nazi love stories should not be made. Broadly, it’s time to recognize that the message of love across lines in a volatile time of racial contention is a genre that Asante gravitates toward; from Belle, to A United Kingdom and now this film. Time will tell how the audience will receive Where Hands Touch, but I recommend that Asante reevaluates whether this “love in spite of race” schtick is one of value,particularly given the social and political climate we are currently in.