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Where Hands Touch: The biggest problem with the interracial Nazi romance

A teenage interracial romance set in Nazi Germany is a well-intended but simplistic melodrama.

In her films Belle and A United Kingdom, director Amma Asante skilfully smuggled piercing interrogations of race and gender in through the back door of prestigious historical dramas. Her characters are often stuck between worlds, not feeling at home in either of them.

Asante’s latest, Where Hands Touch, continues this theme. Its central character is Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), a young black girl in Nazi Germany during its final convulsive year. Her mother (Abbie Cornish) is German and white, and her Senegalese father was a soldier during World War I and part of the French occupying forces after Germany’s defeat. Leyna feels German, although every aspect of Nazi ideology contends that she is not.

Leyna’s story is an admirable composite salvaged from the wreckage of history: as many as 25,000 black Germans survived the midnight of the century. Survival, as a postscript tells us, is defiance. But Asante’s treatment of it feels uncomfortable in many ways.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The first issue is common to war-era films: perfect clothes, soft lighting, stagey sets, rigid writing, ’Allo Allo!-style German-accented English. On top of this is Leyna’s verboten romance with Lutz (George MacKay), a teen who likes to listen to the Billie Holiday record his officer father (Christopher Eccleston) keeps locked away. Lutz is also, not to put too fine a point on it, a fanatical member of the Hitler Youth.

Although the “humanising Nazis” controversy that greeted the UK/US release of the film was meant well, it seems misguided considering Lutz’s narrative arc towards realisation. Nevertheless, was this really the only way to tell Leyna’s story?

Where Hands Touch must necessarily brush up against the Holocaust, and at the very least, Asante does no disrespect. But we’re back in the territory of what critic Michael André Bernstein called the Schindler’s List effect: “a work that manipulates the emotions raised by the enormity of its historical theme in order to disguise the simplistic melodrama”.

We go to see these sorts of movies because they’re uplifting, because they satisfy our need for rescue, reparation and redemption. But justice isn’t done by these saviour or survivor stories, either morally or artistically. It bears repeating: many millions were not saved, many millions were not protectors. A film that tried to distil even an ounce of the horror (like Son of Saul) would, of course, be unendurable. But it would be closer to the truth.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

Video: Rialto Distribution

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.