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In her most ambitious film yet, Amma Asante once more uses interracial relationships to bring an underexplored corner of history to life. Where Hands Touch, an eloquent, sweeping film about a young biracial woman in Nazi Germany, follows the effective approach Asante used in the sumptuously filmed Belle (2013), about a biracial woman raised by aristocrats in 18th-century England, and A United Kingdom (2016), based on a real-life romance between an African prince and a white Englishwoman. Where Hands Touch is just as elegantly made, but it tackles an even broader swath of history, and despite a tilt toward melodrama is even more wrenching in its emotional impact.
The film starts as a romance between 16-year-old Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) and Lutz (George MacKay), the son of a Nazi officer. As history itself turns darker, so does the film, which may briefly seem as mawkish as its title, but which becomes a tough-minded story of labor-camp survival. Throughout, Asante raises questions about bravery, conscience and, most of all, identity.
Her screenplay is inspired by historical research about black and biracial Germans, although the characters are fictional. Stenberg moves easily from her juvenile roles in The Hunger Games and Everything, Everything. Without overplaying, her face subtly and constantly conveys the burden and confusion Leyna feels as the daughter of a white German single mother, Kerstin (Abbie Cornish), and a black soldier who was part of the French force occupying Germany after World War I. Kerstin also has a young son, whose white father is, oddly, barely mentioned in the film.
Leyna insistently considers herself German, but we first see her in 1944, hiding under the floorboards of her own house as Nazis search for her so she can be sterilized (Hitler’s way of preventing black people from adding to the population). The family moves from the Rhineland to Berlin, futilely hoping that Leyna will be safer. There Asante creates an ominous city atmosphere, as red banners with swastikas flutter down from grim brown buildings and Leyna witnesses Jews wearing yellow stars being marched through the streets. Before long Leyna watches from a short distance as Nazi soldiers shoot someone she knows, on an active street in daylight. The scene is shocking in its quick brutality. Yet by immersing us in Leyna’s daily life, Asante avoids making that murder a leaden foreshadowing of even worse to come.
When Lutz accidentally runs into Leyna with his bicycle, he is wearing his Hitler Youth uniform, but is profusely apologetic and obviously drawn to her. They hesitantly wander into a sweetly depicted first love. In a pivotal episode, Lutz borrows a Billie Holiday record from his father’s secret collection, and for a few moments, behind the curtains of Lutz’s house — in a very discreet sex scene — they block out a world whose dangers, they realize all too well, are encroaching on them.
Where Leyna’s place in society has always been fraught, Lutz’s has been too comfortable. MacKay plays the conflicted character without leaning too far toward sympathy or villainy. Asante never loses sight of the issues Lutz faces. Can he look beyond the bigoted assumptions passed down to him? The more subterranean question is whether he sees Leyna as some exotic exception to the rule.
Cornish successfully transforms herself into a strong but anguished mother who has limited options, although it would have helped if her bleached-nearly-white eyebrows were not a constant distraction. Like all boys, Kerstin’s son must join the Hitler Youth, as the government mandates. In an image that is both touching and a stomach punch, Leyna combs her much-loved little brother’s hair while he’s wearing that uniform. Kerstin can only warn him to believe what he has learned at home, not at his meetings.
Christopher Eccleston does a lot with the underwritten role of Lutz’s father. We’re told too little about the Nazi with a secret Billie Holiday stash. But Eccleston adds a glimmer of humanity as the character has to decide whether he is a loyal soldier first or a father trying to save his son by keeping him away from the war.
Leyna’s trajectory is inevitable as the Nazis close in on her. The scenes in a labor camp, within sight of another camp where Jews are being sent to death chambers, are visually familiar from decades of World War II movies. Yet Asante depicts them with such matter-of-factness and lucidity — the guards’ random cruelty, the hunger and sickness, the ashes floating down from the nearby camp — that the episodes feel devastating all over again. And Stenberg has gradually taken Leyna from a hopeful girl in braids to a determined woman with a shaved head, struggling to stay alive.
There’s no denying that there are too many coincidences in the drama, as characters turn up with unlikely convenience at certain times and places. And some of the dialogue is blunt. “Who should I be?” Lutz asks his father. “Should I be you or not?” Asante does not always write her own screenplays, as she did here, but another pattern in her career is that if the writing were just a bit better the films would move from extremely good to extraordinary.
But the filmmaking itself is meticulous, crisply shot by Remi Adefarasin as the story moves from the clear colors of the Rhineland to the bleakness of the camp. Steve Singleton’s fluid editing never calls attention to itself, but allows viewers to sink into the film’s world.
When early stills from the film emerged online, Asante had to face down accusations that she was romanticizing Nazis. Those charges couldn’t be further from the reality of this thoughtful film, whose questions about bigotry, and about passion and compassion, resonate viscerally today.
Production companies:Tantrum Films Ltd., Umedia
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eddleston, Tom Sweet
Director: Amma Asante
Screenwriter: Amma Asante
Producer: Charlie Hanson
Director of photography: Remi Adefarasin
Production designer: Arwel Jones
Costume designer: Pam Downe
Editor: Steve Singleton
Music: Anne Chmelewsky
Casting: Tony Whale
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
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