First and foremost, British filmmaker Amma Asante’s “Where Hands Touch” is a romantic period piece and coming of age drama that revolves around two teenagers who fall in love.
The consequences of their relationship are heightened by the fact that it takes place in Germany during the time of the Holocaust. Also, it involves 15-year-old Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), the biracial daughter of a white German mother (Abbie Cornish) and an Afro-French colonial soldier, and Lutz (George MacKay), a compassionate compulsory member of the Hitler Youth whose father (Christopher Eccleston) is a prominent SS officer.
The first half of the film focuses on Leyna’s mother striving to protect the girl from the increasingly open racism and persecution that she and the Jews in the community are experiencing. This leads Leyna into the protective arms of Lutz, who is a rare and welcoming ally.
The scenes where the two attempt to escape the harsh realities that surround them – swimming in a pristine nearby lake, talking in a clearing in the lush woods just outside their city, dancing to slow jazz on a phonograph in the shadows of the living room in Lutz’s home – are pieced together with meticulous care and leisurely pace by film editor Steve Singleton and captured with startlingly gorgeous cinematography by Remi Adefarasin.
The acting is superb as well, with Stenberg (an actress of African-American and Danish heritage) and MacKay beautifully capturing their characters’ innocence, Cornish firmly establishing a mother’s protective instincts and uncompromising love for her child, and Eccleston’s depiction of a soldier performing his duties as a means of survival rather than a true vocation.
This film also shines a light on the existence of “Rhineland bastards,” the German children of color who grew up under Hitler’s rule. Although Leyna, in the film, comments that she had “never seen another soul like me,” some 400 children of mixed parentage were arrested and sterilized.
The director chose this as a focus in the film after she found an image from 1943 or 1944 of a young girl of color standing with her Aryan classmates on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “She had an unreadable look on her face,” said Asante in a recent interview in Variety. “I didn’t know what to make of that look, and that posed some interesting questions” that could be addressed through the informed fiction of her film.
Prior to its recent premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film raised many eyebrows among those who felt that its story romanticized Nazis. It does not. Nor does a story about the Holocaust not centered on the Jewish experience undermine the Jewish experience, as has also been suggested.
The worst that can be said about “Where Hands Touch” is that a slightly lilted Received Pronunciation British accent is used by all the actors in the place of a German accent and the second half of the film is rather plodding and pedestrian. It is there that Leyna is arrested and sent to a work camp along with other cultural outcasts. Once the film goes there, the story and the storytelling follow all the familiar and overused tropes found in so many other concentration camp films.
While the film’s end is unsatisfying, its intriguing first half and the fine performances throughout the film prove to be enough to carry an audience to the closing credits.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.