Where Hands Touch Review
Star crossed lovers have been at the heart of literature, film and television for as long as one can remember. From the Romeos and Juliets, to Troy and Gabriella - love has consistently been responsible for crossing physical and social boundaries, usually with some kind of commentary on identity, loyalty and tribe mentality. Yes, even in High School Musical. Set at the height of World War 2 in 1940's Berlin, Where Hands Touch tells this exact story, only a forbidden love between young black German Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), and young Nazi SS officer Lutz (George Mackay). Where Hands Touch uses the holocaust as a backdrop for this peculiar love story - which is every bit as puzzling as it sounds. Though based on historical events (there roughly 25,000 black Germans living in the country under the Nazis), Where Hands Touch is a fictionalisation of these lived experiences.
The Third Reich and the Holocaust have often been explored through small, personal stories on-screen. Whilst Asante's film is clearly very well intended, Where Hands Touch manages to strike so many wrong notes throughout it's stay. Instead of the emphasis falling on Leyna’s journey, the film directs all it’s efforts towards the simplistic love story between Leyna and Lutz. Where Hands Touch drew criticism for this exact reason back in 2016 when the film was still in development and sadly, it seems that these objections have fallen on deaf ears.
Stenberg’s Leyna comes across as genuinely naive - one can’t help but raise an eyebrow at her lack of reluctance to start hanging out with a Hitler Youth member as soon as the offer is on the table. Some of the this presumed naivety comes from Stenberg having little to work with in terms of the script. Stenberg herself is believable in the role, and does her best with a struggling script. Her best scenes are with on-screen mother Abbie Cornish, where the two butt heads over their ideologies and fears about the growing genocide in Germany. These scenes show promise but their dialogue is lacking and most of their conversations seem to circle around the same few lines - mostly in reference to Leyna never seeing 'that boy again'.
Worryingly, the 'love conquers all' message seems to outweigh the crimes of the Nazis, which then ends up framing the Holocaust as something which isn’t too bad if you have someone to love. Even if that someone is part of an organised group who wants to kill you and everyone you love.
There’s also the awkward issue that there are no native German speakers cast in a film which is entirely based in Germany. There’s nothing new in a film about World War 2 Germany where every single character speaks English, but this isn’t to say that the result (like most other films of this genre,) is not unsettling. It may have helped the films authenticity, but then again it is a UK production, so perhaps this is only to be expected. There’s a particularly jarring moment when Leyna asks if she speaks French, and she replies that she speaks ‘French and German’, despite the fact she’s been speaking nothing but English for the entire film.
Where Hands Touch initiates conversations which, in another film, would have led to a detailed exploration of identity, adolescence and the idea of nationality. There are a few moments which touch upon these ideas but the film draws away from any meaningful discussions pretty swiftly. At one point, Leyna talks about being banned from swimming pools in the Rhineland after the Jews were banned - evoking Niemöller's poem. Where Hands Touch skims over these issues, choosing to settle on a love story instead.
Director Asante is a very talented filmmaker - the likes of Belle and A United Kingdom has proven her skill with sensitive topics with a similar focus on identity, nationality and allegiance. She has, in the past, excelled at giving us relatable and genuine female characters, particularly WOC, but Where Hands Touch falls very short for an esteemed director.
It is a real shame because, as shown with the final title card and still photographs at the end of the film, there is an important story to be told about the treatment of black Germans throughout the Nazi occupation. Where Hands Touch is not it.